For me personally, 3rd Rock from the Sun is the last high concept sitcom. That is not to say there have not been any since, but when you look back at the history of television there have been so many incredibly over-the-top series that lasted for years and years, like Gilligan’s Island, Mork and Mindy, and Green Acres. Often very much focused on fish-out-of-water scenarios. This series very much in that vein but pushed the boundaries. It was self-aware, commented on current situations and pop culture, and even though it is very much set in the 1990s, I would argue that a lot of the jokes age much better than Friends (I love that show too, don’t turn on me!). I have been slowly rewatching this series and one day my youngest sister, who barely remembers the show, told me that she was watching it too! We both felt completely attached to the character of Sally, who runs around exuding strength, femininity, emotions, sexiness, and total confidence. How often do you ever get to see a character like that one television these days? Usually it’s strength or femininity. Naive/innocent or sexy. Even Alison Brie on Community doesn’t get to have an extensive military background while wearing a cocktail dress.
So anyways, in honor of my love of this phenomenal series, let’s take a look back at a somewhat randomly chosen episode.
3rd Rock is a sitcom that ran on NBC from 1996 to 2001. It follows four aliens who have been sent to Earth, a planet think very little of, in order to study humans. They pose as a family as they observe Earth from a small town in Ohio. The show was created by Bonnie and Ted Turner who have created some amazing comedies including That 70s Show and features Coneheads, Wayne’s World, and The Brady Bunch Movie.
The main characters are Dick (high commander), Sally (security officer, lieutenant), teenager Tommy (intelligence officer), and Harry (they had an extra seat.. then it turned out he was a transmitter. Dick, Sally, and Harry pose as siblings and Tommy acts as Dick’s son even though on their home planet Tommy is by far the oldest. Episodes depict the aliens attempting to understand the habits and relationships of humans with much of the humor coming from their complete lack of understanding or how easily they are taken in by human manipulations. We will take a look at the latter in this episode.
We will be looking at Season Four, Episode Four, entitled “Collect Call for Dick.” In this episode, Dick and Sally become obsessed with collecting “fuzzy buddies,” a blatant reference to the late nineties sudden obsession with beanie babies (this is our A-Story), meanwhile Tommy struggles to understand the purpose of pep rallies (B-Story).
A: The family dies at Rusty’s hamburger chain where they are given a fuzzy buddy as a promotional item that comes free with meal. Dick is confused by their purpose.
B: Tommy doesn’t join in the cheering at a school pep rally for the basketball team. The coach scolds him and Tommy blows him off.
A: Nina sees the fuzzy buddy “Jiggly Pig” lined up on Dick’s desk with a few others and freaks out. Dick teases her and tells her she can have it.
A: With one of the four fuzzy buddies no longer on his desk, Dick looks uncomfortable. He sets his own chin in the middle of the group to feel more balanced.
B: Tommy does push ups while the coach watches and asks Tommy how he feels. Tommy fakes some pep but it’s a terrible attempt.
A: Sally sees everyone at the store rushing to find an elusive fuzzy buddy. She gets turned on by “the hunt” and dives in too.
A: Sally shows Dick her “kills”. He tells her he gave away Jiggly Pig. When Sally explains its value, Dick is disappointed. Now he needs more of them.
A: Dick tells Nina he needs Jiggly Pig back. She says no so he negotiates (terribly) to get it back from her.
B: Tommy’s principal talks to Dick and Tommy about Tommy’s need to have pep. He tries to explain to Dick a solution but Dick is distracted by a nearby fuzzy buddy, and tells Tommy do whatever the principal says.
B: Tommy enters the gym as the new school mascot, Hootie. When all the other students cheer, Tommy finds his pep.
A: Dick is in full-on negotiations for fuzzy buddies over the phone. When a child on the end of the line says they want to talk to their mom first, Dick guilt-trips them and hangs up.
A: Harry asks to play with one of the fuzzy buddies, so Sally makes him wear gloves and play with it while it’s in a plastic bag.
A: Sally tells Dick about the Swap Night which will get them the money back that they’ve spent to pay the rent money they owe. Dick panics at the idea of having to give them up.
A: At swap night, Dick meets with “The Columbian.” The woman is open to buying until she mentions she has the elusive fuzzy buddies. Dick quickly spends money he doesn’t have to purchased the buddy and runs out with all the ones he already owns, no longer willing to sell them.
B: Tommy tries to be peppy at a game but the team is losing. The game ends and Tommy can’t handle the loss so he attacks the coach.
B: In the principal’s office, Tommy is scolded by the principal and coach for his behavior. Tommy blames the mascot persona they forced on him.
A: Dick has lost it over the buddies. The gang has arrived to give him an intervention.
A: The group tell him he has a problem. Dick becomes defensive as they continue to confront him.
A: Harry yells. Dick appears to cave and dump them all out to get rid of them.
A: They ask if there are more. He claims there are not but then they find them hidden all over the apartment.
A: Later on the roof, Dick ponders his now former addiction. He believes that it was caused from trying to fill a void (though they can’t determine what that void would be).
A: Dick runs into Rusty’s fast food chain and cries out warnings to the customers regarding their poor life choices. Security drags him out.
What I love about this episode, and this show in general is how simple the storylines are and yet the characters are so well created that they always take things to an unexpected extreme. This episode still works today even if you have no idea what a beanie baby is, but if you do know it turns up the humor several notches in its parody of a ridiculous nineties trend (though did you guys see it may be coming back?! People are trying to sell them to one another again at ridiculous prices. So silly!)
While Dick is headstrong and oblivious much of the time, he easily gets suckered in to these kinds of things and takes them to an extreme every time. It’s even better if the others are involved because you get to see a different approach even if the goal is the same. For example, Sally is only interested in the toys for the challenge of collecting them. For Harry, he simply wants to play with them because he is easily amused and, like all children who grew up staring at them, cannot understand why the hell you would buy a toy you can’t play with.
Tommy’s storyline may not seem to align well thematically with the A-Story but it actually does work. All four people at the beginning do not understand why others get so excited and violent over something so seemingly innocuous. For Dick, it’s a toy, for Tommy, it’s a game that has no value in his life. They both get consumed by it though and take it to dangerous conclusions. Where Dick forms and addiction, Tommy breaks into a violent rage against a faculty member.
The structure is just like what we have talked about for a while now (so I will try to avoid any more 90s sitcoms since I think you get it). Act One is all set up. Right before the first commercial break, Tommy has found his joy in being the school mascot and is immersed in buying and selling dolls like he’s in the stock market. Act Two sees all of this play out to its ultimate conclusion. And while there is a direct antagonist for Dick in the form of “The Columbian,” in the end his greatest antagonist is himself which is a massive theme for the whole series. So good. I’m going to go watch a few more now.