The planets bouncing to the rock ‘n’ roll theme; Harry’s broadcasts from The Big Giant Head; the brilliance of John Lithgow; the thoughtful conversations on the roof. There’s so much to love about 3rd Rock, but it was the ingenious concept that really set it apart.
3rd Rock From The Sun aired in 1996 amidst a wealth of popular comedy shows – Friends, Frasier, Roseanne and Seinfeld to name a few. It was a golden age of classic American sitcoms that would continue into the 2000s and feed repeat schedules for years to come.
If you switched on in the middle of an episode you might mistake it for just another show about a white, middle-class suburban American family, but the premise of 3rd Rock was something unique. The series follows four aliens who arrive on Earth to learn about human beings, disguised as the Solomon family: the High Commander, Dick (John Lithgow), security officer, Sally (Kristen Johnston), intelligence expert, Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and communications officer, Harry (French Stewart). Each episode sees them trying to make sense of our world, blundering through situations in which they struggle to understand human behaviour, emotions and the way we go about our lives.
I don’t understand this, I’m a superior being. I can calculate the decaying orbit of a dying moon to within a tenth of an inch. Why can’t I calculate the subtotal of Line 59-A?
– Dick, trying to fill out a tax return
The setup gives the show huge creative licence, permitting the aliens to behave pretty much however they want. Coming from another planet they’re not bound by our conventions and have no prior knowledge of how to interact with other humans, and we forgive them for that. Indeed, we enjoy watching them behave how we would sometimes if we didn’t have any inhibitions. Their reactions and misunderstandings provide frequent amusement, and great scope for satire.
In Season 4’s ‘Indecent Dick’, Sally answers a college advert to pose naked for Playpen magazine, much to the horror of the women protesting the advert. Her boyfriend Don (Wayne Knight) can’t explain why he reads Playpen yet isn’t happy for her to model for it, and his hypocrisy shows through. Ultimately, on Sally’s reasoning that she should be allowed to celebrate her body, the women end up siding with her and stop opposing the magazine. This is one of many instances that questions our values and judgement of others, achieving much more than a typical soap storyline ever could and doing so in a much cleverer way.
It’s this acute self-awareness that elevates 3rd Rock above other sitcoms of the time. The crude objectivity of the characters uncovering life on Earth shows us so much more about ourselves than any other comedy before, and perhaps even since. Shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm offer a similar critique of social heirs and graces, and how we might act if we didn’t allow ourselves to be bound by social constraints. But conversely, in many of Larry David’s scenarios he’s deliberately, knowingly inappropriate – there isn’t the innocence of being from another planet. 3rd Rock is satire, but it’s sympathetic satire. We’re shown who we are, but gently.
The humour throughout the life of the show is such that there’s little room for melodrama. The punchlines are delivered in quick succession, and the viewer is gripped. You won’t find any equivalent of Ross and Rachel’s whiny fallouts here. Writers Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner don’t waste time on lengthy exposition about how the aliens arrive, or drawn-out backstory before we get to the goods – in the very first episode (‘Brains and Eggs’), the Solomons land on Earth, there’s a brief explanation in voiceover then it’s straight into the comedy.
The comic misunderstandings flow fast and steady – a favourite of mine is when Dick’s colleague and future love interest Mary Albright (Jane Curtin) says, in an angry bid to keep her parking space, ‘For future reference, I have a red Volvo’, to which Dick responds, ‘Please, Doctor Albright! We barely know each other!’ While many of their misunderstandings form the comedy, so too do moments of sound observation that leave us questioning ourselves – it becomes less about the characters and more about us, the audience.
Why? It’s just a bet against myself! The only way I can win my money back is by getting horribly injured.
– Dick, on why he needs insurance
Much of the humour can be credited to the sheer passion and vigour of Lithgow, French, Johnston and Gordon-Levitt. Every single Solomon actor has such a presence. In an interview segment about table readings, director Terry Hughes commented that ‘you could almost shoot the reading in terms of the energy’. This energy combined with the licence to be unwittingly outrageous is what lifts the comedy and keeps it up there. Joke after joke is delivered seamlessly, with no loss of momentum.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. (flips to the back of the book) I’m not going to read 380 pages if he can’t even make up his mind in the first sentence!’
– Dick, on Hard Times
Gordon-Levitt has commented in interviews that part of the show’s success is due to its persistent humour – that it doesn’t veer into soap territory or try and make us feel something, like other shows do. While that’s true, 3rd Rock isn’t just about the slapstick and one-liners.
And in a subtle way we are made to feel something. It’s funny watching the characters get entangled in things that make no real sense, but we also sympathise with their confusion – because we know all too well how difficult growing up, fitting in, and just life, really can be.
Season 6 of 3rd Rock From The Sun is currently showing on Channel 5 in the UK.