3rd Rock from the Sun

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Template:Infobox television 3rd Rock from the Sun was an American television situation comedy that ran from 1996 until 2001. The show was about a "family" of four extraterrestrials that landed on Earth to observe human beings, while pretending (often awkwardly) to be humans.

The plot

The first episode depicts the Solomon family teleporting into the seats of a Nash Rambler. The first discovery they all make is that none of them can swivel their heads 180 degrees and thus cannot lick their backs, apparently a common practice on their home planet. From that point forward they relatively quickly find places for themselves in human society — they rent a loft apartment, finding that money and identification has been provided for them by their superiors (who are frequently invoked as having a shadowy influence on Earth authorities, shielding the Solomons from the worst effects of their irresponsible actions). Dick Solomon, the High Commander and leader of the expedition, becomes the family provider and takes a position as a physics professor at a local university. Information officer Tommy has been given the body of a teenager and is forced to enroll in high school, leaving security officer Sally and communications officer Harry to spend their lives as thirty somethings hanging out at home and bouncing through short-term jobs. The family often communicate with their offworld (and usually unseen) boss, "The Big Giant Head", who apparently only got the job by kissing "The Big Giant Butt". As played by William Shatner; "The Big Giant Head" is an arrogant, alcoholic, sexual predator; when in human form. His orders are received by Harry, who unexpectedly (and often in inconvenient circumstances) stands erect, his arms stiff (acting perhaps as the antenna), and proclaims "INCOMING MESSAGE FROM THE BIG GIANT HEAD".

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. The oldest of the group was morphed into teenager Tommy, 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 most obviously weird of them all particularly when his built-in "radio" function takes unexpected control over his body, relaying orders from the aliens' homeworld in an odd, booming voice. (Harry's title is never made explicit, but the other characters often refer to him as "Communicator" or "Transmitter", despite the fact that he almost always receives rather than transmits messages.)

Almost all of the episode plots 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 rather than firsthand experience, especially watching television. 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. Lying is almost impossible in their society because of the "Belt of Truth". Leaders like The Big Giant Head are unelected and assumed infallible. 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.

Occasionally references would be made to specific features of the aliens' abilities and of the aliens' 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 naiveté 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 Dick's becoming enormously respected in his field despite his childish behavior. (A famous clip from the show has Dick reading a passage from A Brief History of Time and laughing hysterically at Stephen Hawking's description of virtual particles.) Even so, he 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 extraordinarily attractive body 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 and that in much of his dialogue he finds himself inadvertently quoting passages from literature or film at length. 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.

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. For instance, 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 (race)), eventually deciding that they are Jewish because of their surname, which they had taken from a trucking company. Occasionally the Solomons would encounter or think they encountered other extraterrestrials — Dick once becomes frantic when he misidentifies snowflakes as "brain-sucking parasites", for instance, but the most long-lasting such gag was 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.

Major twists in the plot, such as the various season finales, tended to involve contact with the Solomons' home planet, involving their superiors' ongoing disapproval at the Solomons' antics and their becoming a "laughing stock" among their peers. The first season finale, for instance, featured a message that the Solomons' mission was a failure and demanding that Dick be recalled and replaced with a more competent commander. The newcomer, also played by Lithgow and showing off Lithgow's ability to act against himself in a classic evil twin plot, proved to be a criminal who falsified the message in order to gain control of the Solomons' mission and use his technology to conquer the planet. After the Solomons dispatched him with the help of another alien agent who turns out to be Dennis Rodman (capitalizing on the joke comparing Rodman to an alien commonly made in sitcoms at the time), a genuine message came from the home planet allowing Dick to stay but ordering that he take a wife, as his romance with Dr. Albright was the apparent source of much of his emotional instability. Dick's wife, played by Roseanne Barr, acted as a foil for the other characters, being a newcomer even less versed in the ways of humanity than they, as well as an ironic take on her portrayal as the title character in Roseanne, portraying a "perfect", subservient woman.

The Big Giant Head finally makes an appearance in the fourth season, played by actor William Shatner. His desire to review the team's results and performance is soon forgotten, as the newly corporeal alien is quickly distracted by all the vices his new flesh affords.

At the end of his first appearance, TBGH tells Dick of a bad experience he had once on an airplane. Dick exclaims that the same thing happened to him! This is a fictional crossover to the Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet". Shatner appeared in the original television version; Lithgow appeared in the movie remake some thirty years later.

Comedic style

Third Rock uses comedic 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. (One of the show's most famous moments is when Dick's evil twin traps him in an "invisible box" that Dick tests with his hands and finds to be seamless, leading him to the agonized cry, "My God! He's turned me into a mime!") 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. Relationships between the characters are similarly familiar from theatrical and circus comedy performed in Europe during the past few centuries.

Common sources of humor

  • The aliens experiencing human emotions, such as rejection, jealousy, and infatuation, for the first time and reacting in an unduely flamboyant manner.
  • The aliens interpreting figures of speech literally.
  • The aliens inability to differentiate between what is said and what is meant (missing sarcasm, for instance.)
  • The aliens misusing Earth appliances.

Awards

In 1997 3rd Rock won the most Emmy Awards (5 from 8 nominations) for a television series:

  • Outstanding Lead Actor — Comedy Series — John Lithgow
  • Outstanding Supporting Actress — Comedy Series — Kristen Johnston
  • Outstanding Costume Design — Series — "A Nightmare on Dick Street" — Marguerite Derricks
  • Outstanding Choreography — "A Nightmare on Dick Street"
  • Outstanding Sound Mixing — Comedy Series — "A Nightmare on Dick Street"

John Lithgow received an Emmy Award nomination for "Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series" for each year the show was broadcast, winning in 1996, 1999 and 2001. 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."

Series finale

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After Mary sees Dick change Liam (a malevolent alien played by John Cleese) into a monkey, Dick reveals his true identity to Mary. The Big Giant Head finds out and tells them that their mission is over. Sally helps Don realize what it means to be a police officer and Dick leaves Mary forever.

The ending scene features the aliens singing goodbye in their Rambler and disappearing back to their home planet. Later, in syndication, an alternate ending was shown with Dick returning and abducting Mary in the nude.

Cast

  • John Lithgow as High Commander Dick Solomon
  • Kristen Johnston as Security Officer Lieutenant Sally Solomon (Dick's "sister", she is sometimes introduced as Tommy's sister earlier in the series, although never Dick's "daughter")
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Information Officer Tommy Solomon (Dick's "son" and is also the oldest member of the aliens)
  • French Stewart as Communicator Harry Solomon (Dick's "brother")
  • Wayne Knight as Police Officer Don Orville (at times, Sally's boyfriend)
  • Jane Curtin as Dr. Mary Albright (at times, Dick's girlfriend)
  • Simbi Khali as Nina Campbell (Albright's assistant)
  • Elmarie Wendel as Mrs. Mamie Dubcek (the Solomons' landlord)

The names of the male Solomons are likely a play on the expression, "Every Tom, Dick, and Harry". Sally's name may come from the title of the movie When Harry Met Sally... or from the Dick and Jane series of childrens' readers. The name of nearly every episode involves a pun using the word "Dick."

Region 1 DVD Releases

Season Releases

DVD Date
The Complete First Season July 26, 2005
The Complete Second Season October 25, 2005
The Complete Third Season TBA
The Complete Fourth Season TBA
The Complete Fifth Season TBA
The Complete Sixth Season TBA

External links

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fr:Troisième planète après le Soleil