Sunday, April 22, 2012

Welcome to Earth, baby!

Midway through the 1995-96 television season, NBC added to its roster of hit sitcoms (which included shows like Seinfeld, Friends and Frasier) 3rd Rock from the Sun, a wacky and frenetic farce created by former Saturday Night Live scribes Bonnie and Terry Turner.  The series’ premise involved a quartet of aliens (played by John Lithgow, Kristen Johnson, French Stewart and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who, while on assignment from their home planet, posed as a “typical American family” in order to study Earth habits, customs, mores, etc.  The group had chosen the surname of “Solomon” as their cover with Dick, the “High Commander” (Lithgow), working as a physics professor at a mediocre academic institution, Pendleton College, in fictional Rutherford, Ohio.  The second-in-command Lieutenant (Johnson) posed as Sally, the female member of the tribe (it was jokingly explained that she was assigned the female role because she “lost”) and the youngest, Tommy (Gordon-Levitt), was allocated the body of a young teenager (despite the fact that he was actually the oldest of the four).  The final alien, Harry (Stewart), was only on the mission because “they had an extra seat” in the Rambler that brought them to Earth.

3rd Rock’s deft blend of verbal and physical slapstick quickly became an audience favorite; it would stay on NBC’s schedule for six seasons (ending its run in 2001) and wound up being nominated for a total of thirty-one Emmy Awards during its time on the air, with multiple acting wins (for Lead Actor and Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series) for Lithgow (three trophies) and Johnson (twice).  Four years later, Anchor Bay released all six seasons of the show to DVD (between 2005 and 2006) but with the Bay going out of business, all of those releases are currently OOP.  In May 2011, however, Mill Creek Entertainment announced that they had acquired the DVD rights to 3rd Rock and the company began reissuing the collections, with the first two seasons hitting the streets on September 13 of last year.  Seasons 3 and 4 followed on April 3 just a few weeks ago, and through the generosity of TV Flashbacks rep Barbara Pflughaupt, I got the opportunity to revisit Season 3 of the show within the last few days.

I remember watching a handful of the program’s episodes when it first premiered in January of 1996…but I don’t know why I didn’t stick with the series after that.  I could provide any number of reasons, chiefly among them that due to my night auditing job I was probably getting ready for work at the same time the show aired—a goodly number of TV series escaped my notice that way.  But I had every intention of getting caught up with what I missed out on (after all, I’m a lifelong fan of My Favorite Martian and watched quite a bit of Mork and Mindy as a teenage couch potato) when I purchased all the Anchor Bay sets many years back.  But they were among the first to go in what has since become known as the Great DVD Purge of 2007…so it’s great that Mill Creek has picked up the dropped baton and made 3rd Rock available to those who may have missed out on the first opportunity.

I would describe the series as “sublime silliness”—some of the jokes are a bit obvious, but I’ve never allowed myself to be bothered by that since I’ve learned that laughter often results from knowing what’s to come.  But a lot of the slapstick is first-rate, and the time honored “fish out of water” premise still works beautifully; 3rd Rock’s major strength was always in its fantastic ensemble cast: a troupe of performers who clearly enjoyed what they were doing (they had a great deal of difficulty disguising their amusement on a number of occasions) but rarely ruined it for the viewing audience by “winking” at them, wisely choosing to play it perfectly straight.

Character actor John Lithgow had enjoyed both a lengthy stage and film career (he was twice nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, in 1983 for The World According to Garp and in 1984 for Terms of Endearment) and though he had appeared on the cathode ray tube before (among his many appearances he had won an Emmy in 1986 for a guest shot on Amazing Stories) 3rd Rock would be his first regular weekly TV gig.  Lithgow’s character of Dr. Dick Solomon was a comic marvel: the most narcissistic, grandiose, full-of-himself individual to come along since another boob tube doctor, Frasier Crane.  The fact that Dick was actually the youngest of the alien group (despite being the “oldest” in the family and in charge) allowed Lithgow to portray the character with a certain childlike wonderment at the world around him and get big laughs with his often churlish, petulant behavior.  “Over the top” was SOP for Lithgow during the series’ run, and yet the writers always made certain to temper that with a strong sense of decency and purpose.

Kristen Johnson was always my favorite of the four actors playing the alien “family,” A wonderful performer with the rare talent to play both sexy and funny; she was most deserving of every Emmy they handed to her.  Seeing French Stewart on a recent episode of Community (in which he played a guy who made a living as a French Stewart impersonator) made me realize how much I relished him in his role as Harry, the alien who always appeared to have smoked a few bowls before rising and greeting his fellow extraterrestrials each morning.  But I was always disappointed that Gordon-Levitt didn’t go on to bigger and better things.  (Okay, before you people go stampeding toward the comments section, I have seen him in films such as Brick and Inception.  This is what is known in the blog business as sarcasm.)

Along with the four “alien” performers there were additional joys in the show’s casting: the “fifth” alien was played by longtime TDOY fave Jane Curtin, who was Dr. Mary Albright—colleague (and on-again, off-again love interest) to Dick Solomon, and whose hysterically brittle sarcasm was a welcome spice in the show’s gumbo.   The third season of the show also marked the addition of  two of the program’s utility players, Simbi Khali (as Dick and Mary’s long-suffering administrative assistant Nina) and Elmarie Wendel (as the Solomon’s promiscuous landlady, Mrs. Mamie Dubcek), to the opening credits…not to mention Wayne “Newman” Knight, who appeared in the first season episode “Assault with a Deadly Dick” (the 3rd Rock writers were relentless in finding ways to work the first name of their protagonist into the episode titles—my favorite is “Just Your Average Dick”) as inept police officer Don Leslie Orville…and proved so popular as Sally’s “boyfriend” that he was made an official cast member the following season. 

Writer-producers Bill Martin and Mike Schiff mention in one of the commentaries on the third season set that they found the best way of establishing new characters on the series was to ignore the dictates of the network suits and just gauge the reaction of the fans.  One of my favorites of the “irregular regulars” was Dr. Judith Draper, the deadpan head of Women’s Studies and colleague of Mary’s, played by actress Ileen Getz.  (Sadly, I learned while listening to one of the commentaries that Getz succumbed to cancer in 2005—a tragic end to a very funny actress.)   Also among those performers who turned up from time to time were SNL alum Jan Hooks, whom I remember worked with both Turners on the TBS comedy sketch series starring Bill Tush (many of the characters they did for Tush later turned up on SNL)—Jan played Vicki, the slutty daughter of landlady Dubcek.  Lithgow’s son Ian appeared from time to time as one of Dick Solomon’s students (not to mention Chris Hogan, Danielle Nicolet and David DeLuise—whose father Dom plays David’s character Bug’s dad in “Auto Eurodicka,” flanked by sons Peter and Michael) and in later seasons, the one-and-only William Shatner was cast as the aliens’ supreme leader, The Big Giant Head (who would later have a kid with Hooks’ character.)

I really enjoyed watching the third season set of 3rd Rock from the Sun because it has instilled in me a new appreciation for a series that I clearly took for granted during its original network run.  There are a wealth of hilarious episodes in this collection, but my favorite is probably “Dick and the Other Guy,” which features a guest appearance from the Lord High Priest of Comedy himself, John Cleese (he also enjoys a brief bit in “Average Dick”)—Cleese played Dr. Liam Neesen, a professor every bit as brilliant and eccentric as Dick Solomon (it is revealed that Neesen is himself an alien, sent to destroy Earth but who changes his mind after becoming acquainted with our hero).  Schiff and Martin remark hilariously on the commentary for “Other Guy” that “Elvis has entered the episode!” when Cleese makes his appearance…and explains that one of the show’s directors, Terry Hughes, was instrumental in snagging Cleese (John had also wanted to work with the other John, and returned in Season 6 for a two-parter).

Other big name guest stars seen in the third season of the show include Roseanne (who plays Dick’s “wife” in the two-part “Fun with Dick and Janet”), Cindy Crawford (appearing as a Venusian in another favorite of mine, the two-parter “36! 24! 36! Dick!”), Bill Irwin, and Elaine Stritch and George Grizzard, who play the parents of Curtin’s character in “Dick-in-Law” (Grizzard also shows up for a later third season installment, “My Daddy’s Little Girl”).  The next best thing to seeing John Cleese is having Phil Hartman play the skuzzy ex-boyfriend of Vicki Dubcek in the season’s finale “Eat, Drink, Dick, Mary”…and whose kidnapping of Harry would be resolved in the fourth season opener.  (“Oh yeah!”) offers swell prices on both the third and fourth season sets of 3rd Rock from the Sun (you can also order the previously released first two seasons, for those who missed them) as well as the recently released seasons three and four of Roseanne and That ‘70s ShowThis page will give you a discount code that you can use when ordering, but it’s only available for a limited time (the code expires May 15, 2012)…and also for a limited time, I have a free copy of the 3rd Rock from the Sun: Season 3 set to give away to some lucky reader out there in TDOY Land.  If you’re interested in entering the giveaway, just send me an e-mail with “3rd Rock Giveaway” in the subject header to igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com, and include your name, address and e-mail because I’ll need it for the people who’ll be mailing these prizes out.  The deadline for entering is next Sunday (April 29) at 11:59 EDT—I’ll choose a winner the next morning and get the prize out to them with all deliberate speed.  I think you’ll enjoy this set as much as I did (they sent me a freebie, too…which was most appreciated) so you want to score some free swag, let me here from you.  Thrilling Days of Yesteryear—where the winning tradition continues!


VP81955 said...

My mother, who really isn't a sitcom fan at all (I've tried to get her to watch "Hot In Cleveland," to no avail), loved this series, for reasons I still can't fathom. (That's not to say it isn't a good show, just that it's weird she would single this one out from its contemporaries.)

Caftan Woman said...

"3rd Rock" is currently running locally and it's a pleasure to have something to stop at when I'm channel surfing. My 21 year old daughter is getting as big a kick out of it as I am. It's nice to share laughs.

The hubby and I refer to Lithgow as "the man we spent our honeymoon with" because we saw him on Broadway in "M Butterly" during our nuptial trip.

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Sorry, Ivan, not a fan of this. I like Jane Curtain, but I really just couldn't ever get into this.

Yvette said...

I loved THIRD ROCK the first time around. But I'm not so sure the silliness stands the test of time, Ivan.

Still, I'm crazy about that cast including the one and only Wayne Knight.

I think if you're in a mood. But you gotta' be in a mood. :)