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3rd Rock from the Sun

3rd Rock from the Sun is an Emmy Award-winning American sitcom that aired from 1996 until 2001 on NBC. The show is about a group of extraterrestrial scientists on an expedition of what they consider to be the least important planet, Earth (the "3rd Rock" from the Sun), while posing as a human "family" of four, to observe human beings. Reruns currently air in the United States on TV Land.

Overview

Basic premise

"As many intelligent people know, aliens are all around us. This is a story of a band of four such explorers. In order to blend in, they have assumed human form. This is the High Commander [Dick]. He has assembled an elite team of experts: A decorated military officer [Sally], a seasoned intelligence specialist [Tommy] and [Harry], well, they had an extra seat.

The premise of the show revolves around an extraterrestrial research expedition attempting to live as a "normal" human family in the fictional city of Rutherford, Ohio, where they live in a loft apartment. Humor was principally derived from the aliens' attempts to study human society and, due to their living as humans themselves whilst on Earth, to understand the human condition. In later episodes, they became more accustomed to Earth and often seemed to be more interested in their human lives than in their mission. The episode "Dick's Big Giant Headache" insinuates that this may be due to the effect the frailty of the human condition has on them.

Dick Solomon (played by John Lithgow), the High Commander and leader of the expedition, is the family provider, and takes a position as a physics professor at Pendelton State University. Information officer Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has been given the body of a teenager and is forced to enroll in high school (later college), leaving security officer Sally (Kristen Johnston) and communications officer Harry (French Stewart) to spend their lives as thirty somethings hanging out at home and bouncing through short-term jobs.

The family often communicates with their off-world (and usually unseen) boss, The Big Giant Head, who apparently only got the job by kissing "The Big Giant Butt." When in human form, the Big Giant Head (William Shatner) is an arrogant, alcoholic sexual predator. His orders are received by Harry, who unexpectedly (and often in inconvenient circumstances) stands erect, his arms stiff (acting as the antenna), and proclaims: "Incoming message from the Big Giant Head."

Sources of humor

The show derived much humor from the contrast between the outward appearance adopted by each of the aliens and his or her actual, internal nature. Dick, far from being a wise and fatherly figurehead, is arrogant, self-absorbed, petulant, faddish, and often downright foolish. Inside Sally’s glamorous form lives the weapons and security officer: uncouth, swaggering, and macho. Tommy, the oldest of the group, is morphed into a teenager, his former wisdom at odds with the strange and often humiliating life in which his teenage persona and raging hormones casts him. Only the oddball of the group, Harry, seems comfortable with Earth — yet he is the weirdest of them all, particularly when his built-in "radio" function takes unexpected control over his body, relaying orders from the aliens' home world in an odd, booming voice.

Another source of humor in the show, once pointed out by the character Don, is that the names of the three male aliens, are Tom, Dick and Harry. (i.e., Every Tom, Dick and Harry.)

Comic style

The show uses comic elements which are strikingly unusual in modern North American television comedy, yet drawn from established sources. Clowning techniques, all with a long pedigree in European theatre, are employed throughout the several seasons of the show. Mime, slapstick, speaking in rhyme, and role reversals are employed, giving this science fiction comedy a solid anchoring in more venerable clown traditions, such as the Commedia dell'arte. In the well-established style of clown parody, the aliens repeatedly ape the behavior patterns, mannerisms and speech style of humans in various walks of life, and much humor is derived from their ability to be more like their target human than the original.

Indeed, this Zelig-like quality the family often exhibits is used to great effect in the series, such as in the episode " Dick the Mouth Solomon" in which Sally and Tommy meet a Mafia-style mobster and almost immediately take on the roles of gangster's moll (Sally) and young wiseguy (Tommy). And in " Dick Solomon of the Indiana Solomons," Harry mimics "Uncle Abe" to perfection, right down to the cigar, physical mannerisms, and speech patterns.

Relationships between the characters are similarly familiar from theatrical and circus comedy performed in Europe during the past few centuries. Usually, whenever Don and Sally are in the same room and speaking to one another, their conversations revert to a rather silly, pseudo-film noir dialogue.

Typical episode themes

Almost all the episodes revolve around the Solomons' difficulty integrating themselves into Earth culture and understanding human customs — often their view of Earth realities is distorted by the fact that almost all of their experience of Earth comes through the media, especially television, rather than firsthand experience.

Details about their alien nature are rarely given and inconsistent, except to reinforce the idea that their former lives were almost barren of emotion and most of the relationships humans have with each other. Their original forms, for example, are described as asexual, with reproduction a matter of sending packets of genetic material to each other in the mail. Leaders like The Big Giant Head are unelected and assumed infallible (in fact, it is stated that politicians on their planet are chosen by seeing which one can outrun the "giant fireball"). The upshot is that living in an Earth culture provides the Solomons with an almost intolerable degree of emotional stimulation and conflict, which they are very ill-equipped to handle.

Some of the episodes seemingly derive their comedy from affectionate send-ups of TV and films. For example, in the episode "Father Know Dick," when Harry finds out he is a transmitter, he "goes off the rails" (complete with red jacket as worn by Jim in Rebel Without a Cause), yells "You're tearing me apart!" and goes off to play "chicken" with a tough guy in a bar. In the episode "Dick's Big Giant Headache," both Dick and the Big Giant Head mention seeing something on the wing of the plane after having traveled by airline, a nod to both John Lithgow and William Shatner having played the role of the passenger who sees a gremlin on the wing in The Twilight Zone. In another episode, a face-slapping session with Dick and Sally pastiches the Chinatown sequence: "She's my daughter; my sister; my daughter." In "When Aliens Camp," the Solomons and Mary go on a disastrous camping trip. Dick is captured by a bunch of boy scouts and instantly turns "native." painting his face and sighing "The horror" in a spoof of Marlon Brando's character in Apocalypse Now.

Common mythology

Occasionally references would be made to specific features of the aliens' abilities and of their experiences on their own world, which built up a common mythology for the show. The theme of the idiot savant repeatedly resurfaces, since each member of the family makes up for their extreme naïveté with some special skill owing to their alien nature.

Though Dick's understanding of physics is weaker than his "son" Tommy's, it is implied that even his basic scientific knowledge makes advanced Earth physics appear rudimentary, leading to his becoming respected in his field despite his childish behavior. A well-known segment from an episode has him reading a passage from A Brief History of Time and laughing hysterically at Stephen Hawking's description of virtual particles. Even so, Dick is often shown as the member of the family with the least to recommend him in terms of ability, leading them to question his right to his command. Sally, for instance, is depicted as not only having an attractive body (she is often described as being "Amazonian"), but being amazingly physically strong and fit, able to fight and defeat large groups of men much larger than she (even when doing so is unnecessary and culturally inappropriate).

Tommy, similarly, has been trained with the ability of near-instant recall and has an encyclopedic knowledge about Earth society, which unfortunately seems useless in terms of helping him make appropriate decisions, but ensures that he remains a straight-A student.

Harry is most fascinating, since his behavior is bizarre, unstable and borderline mentally retarded even for a Solomon (a condition, it is implied, engendered by the chip in his brain that allows him to communicate with the home planet), yet somehow this mental condition gives him an inexplicable sex appeal for women and makes him the only Solomon with any talent in the arts — Harry often seems to have a knack for all fine arts, including music and theater, and is consistently shown as being an incredibly talented painter, especially as a portraitist and caricaturist, though his inability to verbally articulate his artistic ideas – or, in fact, any ideas at all – in an intelligent fashion sinks his efforts at making a living through his talent.

One of Dick's driving motivations becomes his desire to master drawing, acting, music, or other pursuits - all of which he fails at miserably due to his lack of understanding of how the clearly less intelligent Harry could possibly possess talents he does not.

Relationships with humans

Each alien became involved in various relationships with humans throughout the course of the series, primarily focusing on Dick's infatuation – at first met with disgust and then, finally, reciprocation – with anthropology professor Dr. Mary Albright (Jane Curtin), who shares an office with him. Much is often made of Mary's angst, insecurity, and neuroses brought on by a lifetime of studying the human condition as well as an unstable relationship with her parents, and the cheerful, childlike naïveté displayed by Dick, the primary factor in him that attracts her.

Sally similarly acquires a long-term boyfriend, Officer Don Orville (Wayne Knight), an overweight and incompetent police officer who becomes attracted to her after several incidents in which he is forced to confront or arrest the Solomons for various crimes. The two generally have conversations while speaking in a manner similar to an old 1930s crime drama.

Tommy manages an on-again/off-again relationship with August Leffler (Shay Astar), a reserved "ice queen" teenager and later the more bubbly Alissa Strudwick (Larisa Oleynik).

Harry has a relationship with his landlord Mrs. Dubcek's (Elmarie Wendel) daughter Vicki (played by Jan Hooks), in an on-screen relationship that often features overly melodramatic scenes. Harry, despite no apparent skills in the art of seduction, also manages to foil a plot to dissolve the Earth by seducing Cindy Crawford.

Some humor comes from the fact that at some point in the show most of the character relationships have been "mixed up" — a strange attraction is briefly shown between Mary and Tommy due to their similar passion for the social sciences and the study of humanity, in which Tommy disturbingly chooses to "step aside" and let Dick pursue her instead. Nina (Simbi Khali), Dick's assistant who primarily serves as his straight man and comic foil, is seen briefly having a fling with Harry. Mrs. Dubcek also, who is at first merely a source of comic relief, her own bizarre foibles and imperceptibly causing her to be a terrible role model for proper human behavior to the Solomons, is revealed to have had a fling with Harry.

Plot twists

As time went on, the show began to intersperse concrete references to the aliens' nature and their homeworld which played a role in affecting the show's plot. They usually described their original bodies as "gelatinous purple tubes" that lacked sex organs or most of the forms of physical definition that humans possess. In fact, when Sally asks why she had to be "the woman," Dick reminds her that she lost (the draw). Evidently, individuals in their species are so near-identical to each other that the Solomons were unaware of the concept of race or ethnicity, and had never invented one for themselves, leading to them to attempt to "choose" one (a source of humor since the Solomons all appear quite white), eventually deciding that they are Jewish because of their surname, which they had taken from the side of a truck.

Occasionally, the Solomons would encounter or think they encountered other extraterrestrials — the most long-lasting such gag being the Solomons' belief that Jell-O is an offshoot of a hostile, amorphous, carnivorous species they have often encountered, prompting them to go into hysterics whenever they see it served and attempt to destroy it.

The name of the Solomons' home planet (if they indeed have one) is never revealed throughout the course of the series; in the show's dialogue, it is referred to as simply "The Home Planet." It is located in a barred spiral galaxy on the Cepheus-Draco border. Major twists in the plot, often shown in the various season finales, tended to involve contact with the home planet, involving their superiors' ongoing disapproval at the Solomons' antics and their becoming a "laughing stock" among their peers.

Cast

3rd Rock maintained a constant ensemble cast, the four main characters – Dick, Sally, Tommy, Harry – with the exception of Tommy, all appearing on the show for every episode of the six seasons it ran. Several other main characters who left or joined the show through its original run supplemented these four, and numerous guest stars and one-time characters supplemented all of them.

Main characters

  • Dick Solomon (John Lithgow) — The High Commander and head of the expedition to Earth. Is often the most child-like member of the group, being, ironically, the youngest of the crew, despite being the oldest family member. Much of the behavioral or societal-based troubles faced by the crew in their mission whilst on Earth are frequently sourced out of some juvenile act perpetrated by Dick, troubles which in turn are forced to be overcome by the entire troupe with a great deal of reluctance.
  • Sally Solomon (Kristen Johnston) — Rank is Lieutenant, and she is the security officer and second-in-command. She has been called Dick’s "sister," but sometimes introduced as Tommy's sister earlier in the series, and, on one occasion, claimed to be his "mother," although never Dick's "daughter" and certainly not his spouse -- failure to clarify the exact relationship between Tommy, Harry and Sally led to humorous confusion whenever either Harry or Sally attempted to act as Tommy's guardian. Sally was chosen to be "the woman" because she apparently lost some sort of contest and was not too thrilled about it; while the alien species is described as asexual, Sally seems to have a harder time trying to figure out womanhood than the others do manhood. She filed a request to be made male early in the mission, though later decided she liked being a woman.
  • Harry Solomon (French Stewart) — Originally he was not part of the mission, but just happened to go for the ride because an extra seat was available. Later, it became known that a chip was in his head, and he became the "Communicator" or "Transmitter". Occasionally, he will get a message from the Solomons' leader, the Big Giant Head, shaking violently in the middle of a sentence and squats down, with his arms at 90 degree angles, declaring "Incoming message from the Big Giant Head!", before going through the motions of delivering the message. He posed as Dick and Sally's "brother", and Tommy's "uncle."
  • Tommy Solomon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — Information Officer and next-in-command. Tommy plays the role of Dick's adolescent "son", yet he is the oldest and smartest of all the aliens. Throughout the series, Tommy continually reminded the others of his superior intelligence and older age. Gordon-Levitt left the series (after the fifth season concluded) as a primary character, only appearing as a recurring character in about half the episodes of season six.
  • Dr. Mary Albright (Jane Curtin) — Dick's colleague and on-and-off girlfriend. Mary felt that Dick was an insensitive idiot, but she could not avoid the infatuation of his quirkiness or child-like actions. Reference is often made to the insecurity caused by her bad parenting, and the fact that before Dick arrived, she was known for sleeping around, and had even been nicknamed "Dr. Slutbunny."
  • Nina Campbell (Simbi Khali) — Dick and Mary's administrative assistant, who often has to put up with Dick demanding things of her that she isn't paid to do (such as taking his car to have its tires rotated) to which she takes a no-nonsense stance. Generally, Nina considers Dick to be an idiot, a chauvinist, and a jerk, and sometimes wonders why Mary dates him. However, there are moments when this pair does appear to actually get on. (Only appears in the opening credits in seasons 3-6.)
  • Mrs. Mamie Dubcek (Elmarie Wendel) — The Solomons's loose, clueless, and carefree landlady who has a very active love life and often makes reference to her sexual escapades (once bringing the Solomons a letter that "the mailman accidentally left in [her] bedroom"). Despite being the Solomon's landlady, she has a friend-like relationship with them, and she often appears in their apartment. (Only appears in the opening credits in seasons 3-6.)
  • Officer Don Leslie Orville (Wayne Knight) — Works for Rutherford's police department. He isn't very good at his job as a policeman. Don maintains an on-off relationship with Sally throughout the series. It is revealed in the final episode of the series that Don is a coward and only joined the police force to be around all the policemen where nothing would happen. (Only appears in the opening credits in seasons 3-6.)

Minor characters

Guest stars

Episodes

Nielsen rankings

Season Episodes Rank
1st 1996 20 #22
2nd 1996-1997 26 #28
3rd 1997-1998 27 #44
4th 1998-1999 24 #77
5th 1999-2000 22 #82
6th 2000-2001 20 #89

International broadcasters

Country Channel Current Broadcaster? Notes
BBC2 No Original broadcaster
Sky1 No Original broadcaster
ITV2 No Latter broadcaster
ITV4 No Latter broadcaster
Sci-Fi Channel Yes Reruns
Paramount Comedy 2 Yes Reruns
Seven Network No
Fox Classics Yes Reruns
Kabel 1 Yes Reruns
Subtv Yes Reruns
TV2 Yes Reruns
Middle East MBC4 No Sixth Season never broadcast.
Jak-TV No
GTV Yes

Major TV Awards & Nominations

In 1997, 3rd Rock won the most Emmy Awards (five from eight nominations) for a television series:

  • 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 — Outstanding Lead Actor — Comedy SeriesJohn Lithgow
  • 1997, 1998, 1999 — Outstanding Supporting Actress — Comedy SeriesKristen Johnston
  • 1996, 1997 — Outstanding Hairstyling For A Series — Pixie Schwartz
  • 1996 — Outstanding Directing For A Comedy Series — James Burrows
  • 1998 — Outstanding Directing For A Comedy Series — Terry Hughes
  • 1997 — Outstanding Special Visual Effects — Glen Bennett, Visual Effects Artists; Patrick Shearn, Visual Effects Supervisor; Chris Staves, Visual Effects Artists
  • 1997, 1999, 2000 — Outstanding Sound Mixing — Comedy Series
  • 1998 — Outstanding Sound Mixing — Comedy Series — "A Nightmare on Dick Street"
  • 1997, 1998 — Outstanding Costume Design — Series — Melina Root
  • 1997, 1998 — Outstanding Comedy Series
  • 1997 — Outstanding Choreography — Marguerite Derricks
  • 1998 — Outstanding Guest Actress In A Comedy Series — Jan Hooks as Vicki Dubcek
  • 1998 — Outstanding Guest Actor In A Comedy Series — John Cleese as Dr. Neesam
  • 1999, 2000 — Outstanding Multi-Camera Picture Editing For A Series
  • 1999 — Outstanding Guest Actress In A Comedy Series — Kathy Bates as Charlotte Everly; and Laurie Metcalf as Jennifer
  • 1999 — Outstanding Guest Actor In A Comedy SeriesWilliam Shatner as The Big Giant Head
  • 2000 — Outstanding Cinematography For A Multi-Camera Series

John Lithgow received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for each year the show was broadcast, winning the Emmy in 1996, 1997, and 1999. Accepting the 1999 award he said "Many wonderful things have happened to me in my life, but the two best are "3rd Rock" and my family."

Golden Globe Awards

  • 1997 — Best Actor in a Television Comedy or MusicalJohn Lithgow

Screen Actors Guild Awards

  • 1996, 1997 — Best Male Actor - Comedy SeriesJohn Lithgow

DVD releases

All six seasons of 3rd Rock from the Sun have been released on DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment in the US, and Network DVD in the UK. Ironically, the sixth season was the first to be released in the UK, as early as 2002, but it was re-released when the fifth season was released. The complete series box-set featuring every episode is due to be re-released in the UK on October 27th, 2008.

Season Release Date
Region 1 Region 2 Region 4
1 July 6, 2005 May 17, 2004 November 9, 2005
2 October 25, 2005 June 21, 2004 November 9, 2005
3 February 21, 2006 August 30, 2004 February 8, 2006
4 May 2, 2006 October 25, 2004 July 6, 2006
5 August 15, 2006 January 24, 2005 February 7, 2007
6 November 14, 2006 June 10, 2002 February 7, 2007
Complete Box Set
(Seasons 1-6)
TBA October 25, 2004 TBA

Other media

A tie-in book, 3rd Rock from the Sun: The Official Report, was released in 1997. Its pages are printed in black and white; however, there are several glossy colored pictures in the center pages featuring various cast members on the show.

The book is essentially a report of their findings during their stay on Earth (although in Dick Solomon's foreword, he states that the report has been requested too early). Primarily a source of humor, the book includes such features as "What to do if you encounter Jell-O", a fan biography of Katie Couric written by Harry, and Sally's version of a Cosmo quiz. Portions of the book are included in the Booklets inside each season set of the series.

Despite the report's being set within the fictional world of 3rd Rock, there is a foreword written by John Lithgow himself in which he explains how he was "abducted" by the 3rd Rock producers and forced to work on their production. There is a post-it note attached to the foreword, apparently written by Dick Solomon, stating that he doesn't know why the foreword is there, but that Lithgow is an Earth actor who appeared in "some helicopter movie." A black and white picture of the 3rd Rock cast and crew is also included at the end of the book.

References

External links

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