The Yelling Will Cease and the Killing Will Commence

The Case for 3rd Rock from the Sun

There are three reasons for releasing a television show on DVD. No, scratch that — there's only one reason for releasing a television show on DVD, and that's to make money. But this can be accomplished in three ways. First, by collecting a popular and much-loved show for people to add to their home collections (as with “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld” ); second, to drum up interest in the next season of a popular show that's currently running (as in the case of Lost) or to create an audience for a failing show that's currently running (“Arrested Development”); and third, to cash in on a show that wasn't popular at the time of its release but has built up a sure-fire cult following. The gargantuan sales of “Star Trek” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” DVD box sets show how well the latter strategy can work.

Every once in a while, though, there's a release that leaves you wondering why it exists. Sometimes a DVD set shows up for a show that wasn’t critically acclaimed, wasn’t a smash ratings hit, and has gathered no cult cachet since its disappearance. Even if the existence of a “Knight Rider” box set can be explained by David Hasselhoff’s inexplicable Euro-cult, what can possibly be the reason for a “Hunter” collection? Is Stepfanie Kramer big in Germany? Even if there exists a substantial demographic of people so camp-starved that they are purchasing and watching “Saved By the Bell,” can you imagine people actually sitting down and watching a dozen episodes of “Full House” at a sitting with the audio commentary turned on so they can hear what Jodie Sweetin thinks about each one? And can even an bigger-than-ever population of upwardly mobile African-Americans explain the existence of a DVD set of “The Jeffersons?”

The appearance on shelves earlier this year of the first season of “3rd Rock from the Sun” posed a similar question. The NBC sitcom (which debuted in 1996 and was the brainchild of “Saturday Night Live” vets Bonnie and Terry Turner, who would go on to create the even more hit-or-miss “That '70s Show”) was never a ratings smash, although the network didn't do much to help matters by shuttling it from night to night, time-slot to time-slot, a total of 15 schedule changes over its five-year run. It likewise didn't garner much critical praise; the best anyone could say about it was that it meant well, and most reviewers’ opinions recalled Spy magazine's assessment of Ellen DeGeneres - "always more affable than what you might call funny." And it never developed any kind of a cult following; despite a couple of Emmy wins, its post-cancellation influence, aside from the main character squeaking in at #24 in TV Guide's "25 Greatest TV Sci-Fi Legends" issue, consists of launching the career of heavy-lidded unfunnyman French Stewart, a legacy that calls for a war crimes tribunal rather than a commemorative DVD set.

So who, exactly, is the target audience for this release? Who’s clamoring for an archive edition of this hokey low-concept sitcom that recycles the fish-out-of-water plot in the lamest way possible, with misfit aliens visiting Earth and utterly failing to fit in? Who could possibly have demanded a permanent collection of a show that most people know, if they know it at all, because it shows up in syndication before “Simpsons” reruns? Who, in other words, actually bought this thing?

Me, for one.

Here's something you have to understand: “3rd Rock from the Sun” was not a great show. It’s not a triumph of direction, even for a situation comedy; watching these early episodes, even non-nerdy viewers who don’t spend all their time updating the “Goofs“ section at IMDB can't help but notice innumerable glitches, clumsy edits, and awkward set-ups. Thematically, it broke no new ground, and its limp outsider take on cultural mores yielded fewer canny insights into human behavior than it did trite observations on those crazy differences between men and woman. And the scripts ...

Well, actually, the scripts weren’t bad. In fact, on occasion, they were downright hilarious, though the lack of consistency killed: with a big writing staff of vastly unequal talent, a fantastically written episode was frequently followed by a complete dud. When you’d get a good writer — and you would, with many episodes coming from “Simpsons” vets Joshua Sternin and Jeffrey Ventimilia, “King of the Hill” writers Aron Abrams and Gregory Thompson, and all-around pros Linwood Boomer, David Sacks and Bob Kushell — they’d take chances, take advantage of the freedom given them by the format, and produce scripts that used the they’ll-do-anything premise of the show to great effect. But when it fell to lesser writers — who, unfortunately consisted of many of the show’s head honchos, including the Turners and the overrated, humorless, and strangely ubiquitous hack Mark Brazill — the show took no chances, went for predictable jokes, and generally fell flat on its ass. It lived and died by how willing the writers were to take advantage of the show’s cast.

But, man, what a cast.

When “NewsRadio” — another NBC show with dismal ratings, hit-and-miss scripts, and a dynamite cast — was struggling to find an audience, Dave Foley lamented the fact that viewers who didn’t tune in were missing out on "the sexiest cast on television." He wasn’t talking about raw physical sex appeal — after all, this is a show that starred Andy Dick and Stephen Root, who, whatever their comedic gifts, aren't making anyone's hott-with-two-Ts list. He was talking about a cast who adored each other, who loved to work together, and who were game for absolutely anything. No matter how weak or strong the script, they tore into it with fangs flashing, and blew the doors off every week just for the sheer joy of doing it. But Foley was wrong; his wasn’t the sexiest cast on television at the time. “3rd Rock from the Sun”’s was.

Now, don’t get me wrong: this cast — consisting in the main of leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Lithgow and French Stewart as the aliens Tom, Dick and Harry (haw, haw), Kristen Johnston as their artificially female crewmate Sally, and diehard comic survivor Jane Curtin as earthling Dr. Mary Albright — was certainly capable of subtle, understated “The Office”-style comedic performances, but that’s not what they were doing here. They were, every one of them, engaged in full-on, hardcore, blow-the-doors-off scenery chewing. In every episode, they pulled off the governor and mashed the pedal to the floor, serving up slice after slice of pure honey-baked ham. Every one of them overacted as if they didn’t know any other way to do it — but this wasn’t the overacting of hacks trying to oversell every joke for the people in the cheap seats. This was the overacting of absolute professionals who knew that some jokes were best sold by inflating the delivery until it blew up like a dollar-store basketball, adding a greater dimension to the good gags and providing at least some comedic juice to the bad ones.

French Stewart — strangely, the "discovery" of the series even though he alternately under- or oversold his jokes and didn’t do much with his character, the very definition of the wacky relative archetype — was a weak link here, but you’ll search in vain for another one. Gordon-Levitt, after a weak start early on, completely grows into his character, delivering tons of laugh lines with deadly efficiency in the later seasons. Kristen Johnston is a nearly perfect choice as Sally; she’s insanely sexy, but her oversized Amazonian body and goofily expressive face are tailor-made for physical comedy, making her the rare bombshell character who can sell jokes as skillfully as she can draw eyeballs. She takes what could be a distressingly dull character (it falls to her to deliver most of the predictable Venus/Mars stuff) and makes it into something really worthwhile, turning — by performance alone — what might as well be called "The Woman" into a broad, gurning cartoon capable of being sexy and menacing in the space of one line.

Even most of the secondary roles were staffed by experts who chewed their lines down to the bone. Elmarie Wendel does nothing with the wasted role of the family’s landlord, but Wayne Knight does a terrific noir-parody as Officer Don (who, incidentally, is Sally’s love interest; while the show wasn’t iconoclastic in many ways, it was surprisingly willing to give us hilariously atypical romantic pairings, including hot and heavy action between the inhumanly stacked Johnston and the toadlike Knight, as well as Curtin and Lithgow — both well past the age at which TV producers allow for having an active sex life). Simbi Khali took a cheap, underwritten caricature (sassy black secretary) and played it with such cool that she entirely avoided stereotype. John Lithgow’s son Ian played one of Dick’s students, and gave it one of the most hilarious portrayals of sheer terror you’ll ever see: he played pure petrified fear in a way that only a guy having to bounce lines off his atomically overacting father can accomplish. Even guest-stars, seeing what they were up against, stepped up and became gamers: in a late-season story arc, Phil Hartman — around the same time he was doing for “NewsRadio” what John Lithgow was doing for “3rd Rock” — turned in a crushingly funny performance as Harry’s romantic rival.

Meanwhile, Jane Curtin is an absolute revelation. Too often confined to tokenism in her “Saturday Night Live” days and then consigned to the feel-good mediocrity of “Kate & Allie”, she really got a chance to strut here, and she took advantage of every second of it. The role of Mary Albright wasn’t great; too often, she was reduced to the straight-woman role to Dick’s outrageously inappropriate clowning, but the writers caught on soon enough to what a treasure they had in Curtin and started giving her more to do. When she got juicy lines, she made the most of them, and that most was pretty damn good indeed. Given the chance, she showed everyone who bothered to tune in how gifted a comic actress she could be, and that surprised a lot of people, myself included. No one had ever used her as well before, and no one’s used her as well since. And that’s a shame.

Shame, of course, is the one emotion completely lacking in John Lithgow’s jaw-dropping portrayal of Dr. Dick Solomon. There’s not one single line in one single episode that Lithgow doesn’t invest with woozy intensity. He gives everything he’s got, which, as longtime Lithgow-watchers know, is considerable. Even predictable exit lines, reaction shots and throwaway jokes become hand grenades: he’s really a wonder to behold, overdoing it like there’s no tomorrow. And, as with Curtin’s character, the more the writers realized what he was capable of, the more they gave him lines that took advantage of his superheated hamminess: they handed him anything and everything to do, from ludicrous musical numbers to mind-blowing overreactions and meltdowns to insane physical gags to amazing bits where he’d start talking in foreign languages for no reason. It’s legitimately one of the best comic performances in television history, and it gets better and better (and bigger and bigger) as it goes along. In one early moment, Dick — who’s about to cause yet another scene in front of Mary, this time at a bookstore reading — prepares to launch into one of his overblown gasbag rants, but just prior to doing so, delivers a quiet aside to her: "You invited me, so this is your fault." It brings the whole scene crashing down in the best possible way. He even overinflated his sputtering, making a comic tour de force out of one of the most tired tropes of TV comedy.

The only actor who could possibly compete with this level of hammy hyper-intensity is William Shatner — and, in the surest sign in the whole series that the producers knew exactly what they had, that’s exactly who they brought in to up the ante. Captain Kirk makes a number of appearances as Lithgow’s superior, the Big Giant Head, and watching these two cornballs bounce off of each other was a sadly under-recognized pleasure of 1990s television. There's even a great moment in his first appearance — in retrospect, you can see it coming a mile off, but when you first see it, it puts you on the floor — where he and Lithgow, in an ultimate inside-baseball moment, swap stories about nightmarish plane rides they’ve both taken.

In fact, there’s lots of little pop-culture nerd Christmas presents like that in the show. One of the writers, Brian Greene, was a full-blown physicist, and rewarded geeky viewers by throwing lots of gags in the bizarre calculations Dick would write on the board for his stupefied students. But, this shade of “Futurama” aside, the greatest referential gags came from Lithgow. As anyone who watched Kate Winslet fondle herself and whore for Oscar gold on “Extras” can tell you, there’s few things more enjoyable than a genuinely talented actor willing to take the piss out of herself; Lithgow does it again and again on “3rd Rock,” and it’s a joy every time. Season 1 ends with the appearance of "Evil Dick," a sinister doppelganger of the High Commander, also played by Lithgow; he turns it into the ultimate parody of his already self-parodic performance in Raising Cain. He likewise goofs on himself and his impressive body of work in perfectly deployed, but never overly telegraphed, references to Footloose, Terms of Endearment, and even Buckaroo Banzai. This isn’t a guy who’'s willing to shit on his legacy for a cheap laugh; this is a guy who’s willing to brilliantly invoke his legacy for a huge, smart laugh.

“3rd Rock from the Sun“ has no cult following, no legacy to maintain, and no legions of viewers demanding that it be immortalized on shiny plastic discs. All it has, in the end, is 4+ years of some of the best, broadest, sexiest performances in television comedy. If nothing else, it avoided the relentless catch-phrasing of a lot of other shows of its day; the closest it came was Dick’s repeated self-analysis: "My God! I'm gorgeous!" The man who played him could just as well have been talking about his own performance, and it’s a good thing he let his own ego run rampant: by never denying how gorgeous he thought he was, he left us with what’s on these DVDs, something that’s definitely worth saving.