TV Rewind: 25 Years Later, 3rd Rock from the Sun Is Still Teaching Us How to Be HumanPhoto Courtesy of NBC TV Features 3rd Rock from the Sun
Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
Few sitcoms in history have garnered such acclaim—only to be virtually forgotten about—as 3rd Rock from the Sun. Running for an impressive six seasons on NBC when it debuted 25 years ago on January 9, 1996, 3rd Rock followed the lives of four aliens sent to Earth on a mission to find the essence of the human experience, posing as best they could as a typical family in suburban Ohio.
Over the show’s original run of 139 episodes through May 2001, 3rd Rock accumulated a glut of awards including eight Emmys, two SAG awards, and two Golden Globes for the strength of its writing, cast, and the tender humanity that drives the series. The show was created by veteran show writers Bonnie and Terry Turner, the husband-and-wife duo responsible for some of comedy’s funniest moments on the likes of Saturday Night Live, Roseanne, and That 70s Show. 3rd Rock also featured a strong cast composed of both legends and fledging stars, along with a wealth of comedic possibilities inspired by the show’s central premise; when writing solely about the human experience you’ll basically never run out of material. With all this in mind, it begs the question of how a show with near universal acclaim can feel virtually erased from the classic sitcom canon. In the never-ending marathon that quarantine has become, it is high time to revisit such an otherworldly series.
At the center of the family unit is Dick Solomon, the group’s high commander played by John Lithgow. After an already rich career in film and drama, Lithgow added nuance to his role as the pompously incompetent commander-in-chief who takes up a job teaching confounded college students as a masters-level physics professor at the local Pendleton University, located in the fictional town of Rutherford. In his first major role, a baby-faced teenaged Joseph Gordon-Levitt inversely plays the family’s oldest and wisest member as Tommy, the Information Officer. In his role, he is forced to go through the trials of puberty and public school in order to provide a deeper understanding of what makes humans tick. Lieutenant and security officer Sally—played by Kristen Johnston, also known as Lexi Featherston who fell out of a window in the penultimate episode of Sex and the City—is a highly-decorated combat specialist and military and the sole woman of the group. On the bottom of the family hierarchy is French Stewart portraying Communications Officer Harry, also referenced as “the one with the transmitter.” Half his headspace is taken up by a chip that allows him to connect with the family’s alien overlord (a.k.a. The Big, Giant Head) on their home planet, which causes him to flail around and stick his arms out like antennae when receiving transmission. Both Sally and Harry are relegated to the roles of listless 20-somethings, bouncing around between dead-end jobs and whatever schemes they can get into for the day.
Rounding out the cast are the unsuspecting humans that the Solomons take a liking to. The family rents a cramped and dated attic apartment from the free-wheeling Mrs. Dubchek, as they try to establish a personal connection with their landlord while simultaneously trying to distance her from knowing about their mission. Dick shares his office at the university with Dr. Mary Albright, a PhD of Anthropology. As portrayed by Jane Curtain (who is comedy royalty as one of the premiere members of SNL, and known as “Queen of the Deadpan”), Mary plays the one straight character surrounded by nonsense, and becomes a central power in how the family comes to learn about the core of human connection.
Mary also helps Dick discover his primal instinct of lust and infatuation upon their first interactions, as the normally collected Dick begins tripping over himself in order to impress her, a power dynamic she is keenly aware of while he is trying to logicize his first experience with feelings of longing and romance. Their relationship begins to blossom as Mary starts taking an interest in this man unlike any she’s met before, but them getting close leads the rest of the family to fear the possibility that Dick could spill their secret at any minute.
It is in this sort of dynamic that 3rd Rock is able to hone its inspired brand of comedy where these aliens are trying to dig as deep as they can into their research all while trying to keep their true identity underwraps. That tension is cut with a variety of comedic devices including slapstick, wordplay, and physical comedy that gives the characters a semblance that not everything on this Earth should be taken at face value.
Seeing these vastly intelligent beings struggle to grasp the subtle nuances of human communication while trying to learn all there is about humanity leads to the family slowing growing more fond of their subjects. Aliens have long been used as a plot point for sitcoms, just look at shows like Mork & Mindy or Alf. There is a natural humor in seeing how these foreign characters adjust to the intricacies of the life we are born into, learning the social cues and expectations the audience takes for granted. But the show creators are also able to poke holes into the facade that perhaps all our unwritten social cues do not come naturally to everyone. Furthermore, 3rd Rock differentiates itself from those other extraterrestrial shows by focusing on the family’s observations of how weird human life is, instead of a group of humans trying to figure out the foreign behaviors of one rogue alien. In other words, 3rd Rock asks us to look inward.
A lot of sitcoms, especially those made up until about five years ago really, do not tend to age well with the rapidly evolving ideas as to what constitutes satire and what is a social blindspot. But under the guise of a group of people with no knowledge of the implied structures that shape society, 3rd Rock was often apt to use social gaffes for a teaching moment that shows how bizarre they really are. These tropes are used to say “this is what not to do,” because the family truly doesn’t know any better.
One of the recurring jokes throughout the first few episodes is Sally’s relationship to gender. Though the brilliant war-monger does not have a maternal bone in her body, she is relegated to the housekeeping chores of the family unit which often go awry due to her lack of expertise. When asking Dick why she “got stuck” being the woman, Dick reminds her that she lost when they drew straws. Though Sally at first feels shorthanded for what she sees to be an inferior role, she soon becomes obsessed with her femininity, her beauty, and the power it gives her over all the local men who can’t take their eyes off her. Even when she’s spending her days primping and buying shoes, she is still the most feared member of the family. She’s tough and brash, and quick to use her physical strength as a first and last resort to sort out any issues.
Later in Season 1, the Solomons are made aware of the cultural boundaries surrounding heritage and nationality with “Dick Like Me.” Dick’s secretary Nina (played by Simbi Khali), enters the office wearing a Zimbabwean dhuku. When Mary comments that she thinks the headdress is beautiful, Nina thanks her and mentions that she wears it to feel closer to her ancestors. The ever-clueless Dick goes on to inquire, “Oh. So that’s the traditional headdress of ancient secretaries?” Nina responds defiantly, proclaiming that her Blackness is of deep importance to her, leading Dick to try to figure out what culture the Solomons belong to. Race-based jokes toe a very thin line, but in using the idea of color-blindness to show that Dick has a lot to learn about human identity, the show writers knew how to punch up and use Dick’s subtle racism as an example of what not to do.
Over the course of the series, the aliens quickly discover that the core of the human experience cannot be understood from their positions as outsiders looking in. Within the jokes about humanity is a pure joy that stems from genuine curiosity and learning about the complicated lives human live. It begs fans of the show to look inside themselves and ask that same question that fuels their mission: What exactly is it that makes us human?
Kurt Suchman is a New Jersey transplant in Seattle writing about music, food, culture, and queer shit. Coherent thoughts can be found in Shondaland, Paste, and Food52, and incoherent thoughts can be found @kurtinterrupted.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.