Ch4 started showing the first season of 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996) in the mornings a few weeks ago, without any sort of warning or advertising… so it took me a couple days to spot what the blighters were up to! The episodes have clearly been edited (or “bowdlerised”, as we say in the biz) to make them more suitable for breakfast-time viewing, which means that a few exchanges seem slightly choppy and scenes sometimes end without a real punchline*… but overall, I was impressed by how funny the show still is after all these years (decades, even!). The basic premise of four aliens posing (unconvincingly) as a human family in order to study the behaviour of ordinary human beings allows for a lot of broad, fish-out-of-water silliness, but there’s also an undercurrent of sly satire… such as in the episode where ‘Sally’ (Kristen Johnston) and ‘Harry’ (French Stewart) are queuing to apply for their driving permits, bemoaning all of the waiting and testing they’ll have to suffer through to be able to take charge of a motor vehicle. “Can you imagine what you must have to go through to get a gun?”, Harry naively exclaims. Indeed.
Apparently the Solomons’ original alien forms were sexless, and when Sally asks why “she”, a decorated military officer, had to be the token female of the group, preening patriarch ‘Dick’ (John Lithgow) reminds her “it’s because you lost”. Watching her coming to terms with, or blatantly ignoring, established gender stereotypes provides a lot of great laughs… and I’ve no doubt this show helped to inspire the budding feminist inside me, gawking as this stunning six-foot amazon kicked down doors, punched out disapproving mothers, and lured sleazy conspiracy-theorists out to isolated cornfields, so she could (attempt to) bludgeon them to death! There’s no question that Johnston is a major hottie… but what makes her so engaging (and Emmy-worthy!) here is how many gears her character has, shifting from raging aggression to flirty sexuality to girlish innocence to plaintive wailing and torment… all in the blink of an eye! Some of the faces she pulls are outright ridiculous, but this is a show where cartoony excess is encouraged and celebrated, so you can’t fault her for that! Although my enthusiasm for The Exes tailed off during the third season, I still consider Johnston to be one of my fave comedic actresses… and it’s a crying shame she doesn’t get material this rewarding to work with anymore.
Meanwhile, Dick’s office-mate and (initially) unrequited love interest, ‘Dr. Mary Albright’, is played by sitcom veteran Jane Curtin… who could have been lumbered with the boring “straight-woman” role, but thankfully gets all sorts of petty grudges and neuroses to play with. Their assertive admin assistant, ‘Nina Campbell’, is played by Simbi Khali… who I’ll always admire for her snarky put-downs and sassy short-skirts. Hotcha! The only female student in Dick’s class to get any lines is ‘Caryn’, played by the super-cute Danielle Nicolet… and top marks to the showrunners for giving two prominent recurring roles to women-of-colour (even if their characters are in rather subordinate positions). Back at home-base, the family’s loose, loquacious landlady, ‘Mrs. Dubcek’, is played by Elmarie Wendel… and at Tommy’s school, there was a cameo by Jane Lynch as a teacher (ep #1.5), but sadly she didn’t return after that. It would have been fun to see her mixing it up with everyone! And in ep #1.2, Tommy caught a cold from a girl played by Marla Sokoloff, who again only had one brief scene, and then vanished from the show’s universe.
As for the male cast-members: I couldn’t help seeing Dick as a sort of spiritual father to Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. Besides the fact they’re both heavy into Physics, they also share an arrogant assumption of superiority, combined with a childlike playfulness and fragility. Plus the fact the actors playing them are both quite tall, and can be fairly physical/theatrical at times. Maybe in the TBBT series finale they’ll reveal that Sheldon was really just an undercover alien all along, and the Solomons can swing by to collect him! No? Maybe not, then. It’s funny seeing indie-darling Joseph Gordon-Levitt looking so damn young and wide-eyed, but even back then he was clearly a very talented actor… and adorable to boot! Overall, Harry is probably my fave male family member though, with his cool vintage clothing, squinty way of looking at the world, and Stan-Laurel-esque schtick. Bless him. In fact, he may be one of my fave sitcom characters of all time!
* Ch4 will jump right into the second season on Monday, and I’ll most likely end up watching it… but I’d much rather be watching the DVDs, so I could enjoy the dirty jokes they keep cutting out!