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The ''3rd Rock'' premiere takes a shot at EW critics

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The ”3rd Rock” premiere takes a shot at EW critics

Back in 1995, my EW colleague Ken Tucker gave a D to a new NBC sitcom about aliens called ”3rd Rock From the Sun.” I helped write the review’s headline: ”’Rock’ Stupid.” How were we to know that it would become the season’s biggest breakout hit?

Actually, a lot of TV critics panned ”3rd Rock” at first, but once they saw the ratings, many changed their minds (”Oh, now we get it — it’s so stupid, it’s smart!”). Not us. I echoed Ken’s opinion in my column, and we soon heard we were considered public enemy No. 1 on the ”3rd Rock” set.

As the show’s numbers declined sharply in subsequent seasons, we pretty much ignored ”3rd Rock,” not wanting to kick a show when it was down. (Hey, we’re critics, but we’re not heartless.) Then, as I was perusing the plot summary for this season’s premiere, I noticed a tabloid-reporter character named ”Ken Fretts.” Surely this couldn’t be a coincidence.

I called an NBC publicist and asked if the show’s writers were trying to send us a message. She confirmed that they had named the character after us; in fact, he was originally called ”Bruce Tucker,” but they thought no one would get the in-joke. I wasn’t sure whether to be honored or outraged.

Then I watched the episode on Tuesday night. And I’ve got to say, I think we came off pretty well. Sure, Ken Fretts works for a supermarket scandal sheet, but he’s dogged, refuses to drink on duty, and rejects a substandard story about an alleged alien baby.

Plus, he was played by Curtis Armstrong, whose dry comic timing I’ve admired since his role as Miles in ”Risky Business” (”Terrific — I’ve got a trig midterm tomorrow, and I’m being chased by Guido the Killer Pimp”). True, as the NBC flack helpfully pointed out, ”he’s not exactly Mel Gibson” — let’s not forget he was Booger in ”Revenge of the Nerds” — but he delivered perhaps the subtlest performance in ”3rd Rock” history. Which is faint praise, I know, given this show’s cartoonishly broad acting style.

So if the ”3rd Rock” writers were trying to tick us off, they failed. And if they were trying to win us over, they failed at that too. Ken and I agree the show still isn’t funny, no matter how many Emmys John Lithgow and Kristen Johnston take home. But I will say this in its favor: It’s not NBC’s worst sitcom, at least not as long as ”The Mike O’Malley Show” stays on the air. Oops, better be careful — that show’s writers might name a character after us.

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