3rd Rock from the Sun feels like a sitcom out of time in some ways. It aired in the late ‘90s and the early 2000s, but it has the premise of a sitcom from the ‘60s, when shows like The Munsters or I Dream of Jeannie were popular. In the ‘90s, people were getting into shows like Friends and Seinfeld, hangout sitcoms about character people could relate to. 3rd Rock from the Sun is high concept and silly. It feels even less in step with the current sitcom landscape. And yet recently I’ve found myself watching episodes periodically over the last couple of weeks.
The premise of the show is as follows. Four aliens come to Earth to study the planet and they take human form. There are some wacky things beyond that. The oldest of the aliens ends up in the body of a kid. They have no distinct sexes on their planet, so becoming human is odd on that front, especially for the one who ends up like a woman. One of them has a transmitter in their head and gets messages from the home planet and its supreme leader, The Big Giant Head.
Naturally, the aliens are fishes out of water, but they can’t blow their cover. They don’t understand customs or turns of phrase. Everything is new to them. Confusion, and hilarity, ensue. On top of that, the main characters largely make a meal out of everything. John Lithgow stars as Dick Solomon, the leader of the mission and the patriarch of the family. He has a job as a professional of physics at a university. Because, you see, he’s a math and science genius, but he doesn’t know basic human stuff. Lithgow hams it up to the hilt, but he also won three Emmys, which feels lost to time.
Kristen Johnson, who plays Dick’s “sister” Sally, won two Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy. French Stewart plays their “brother” Harry. Dick’s “son” is Tommy, plays by a young, up-and-coming actor named Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Yes, the future movie star was once the kid on a wacky sitcom. Like many kids who have burgeoning careers, JGL isn’t around a lot for the sixth, and final, season, which definitely makes the show feel a bit different. However, he’s also the only one of the family who isn’t chewing scenery, so he always brought a different vibe. Also worth noting are Jane Curtin as Dr. Mary Albright, Dick’s colleague and love interest, and Don Orville, Sally’s love interest, a cop played by Wayne Knight. That’s right, he did more than just play Newman!
It’s a profoundly silly show. There is little nuance or subtlety. It’s very much a broad sitcom from a bygone era. I remember watching it periodically when it aired, and thinking is was solid, but I didn’t remember it much. I decided to check out an episode on a whim, because the series is available for free on The Roku Channel on my Roku with limited commercials. Turns out it’s fun! The hamminess is a delight, especially from Lithgow. Does every joke land? No. Is it a smidge too broad at times? Sure. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed picking and choosing episodes and watching them. I’ve watched a selection from across all six seasons. I would say the seasons three through five range is the best of the bunch, if you want to dip your toe in.
So if you aren’t adverse to a goofy sitcom with a broad premise, check in with the wacky alien family from Rutherford, Ohio on 3rd Rock from the Sun.