Why ”3rd Rock” will be missed
Tuesday, May 22 (8 p.m., NBC), marks ”3rd Rock from the Sun”’s final episode, and I feel alone in my mourning. When the aliens leave Earth tonight (serenaded by guest Elvis Costello) for their home planet after five years, what was once heralded as a meteoric hit now resides at the bottom of a ratings crater. It’s not entirely the show’s fault: NBC seemed to do everything it could to shake loose any loyal audience the sitcom ever mustered, changing its time slot 17 times. If the network could have aired it on Animal Planet to thoroughly confuse fans, it would have.
Of course, it wasn’t only the roving time slot that killed it. I’m shocked by the virulence with which many people hate this show. I’m not an easy laugh, but ”3rd Rock” consistently reduces me to giggles. Yet when I make the mistake of mentioning this to my coworkers, they look at me as if I’ve just told them that Carrot Top is today’s Groucho. (And EW’s general disdain for the show is no secret: The fourth season premiere featured a weasly alien investigator named Ken Fretts, after our TV critics, Ken Tucker and Bruce Fretts.)
I love the series because of how far the cast will go for a laugh, obviously taking their lead from John Lithgow. A talented dramatic actor, he was mired in stock villain roles in such formula action dreck as ”Cliffhanger” and ”Ricochet” when he began this sitcom in 1996, and he obviously felt he had nothing to lose by looking like a complete ass. And what an ass he is! Some fault him for being over the top, but many of his lines wouldn’t work without his cartoonish gesticulations, loopy grins, and exaggerated frowns. With the effort he put in, I would not begrudge him any of his three Emmys. (I attribute some people’s loathing of this show to his winning streak at the expense of championed actors like Garry Shandling and Ray Romano.)
While the show is essentially about a group of four very stupid people, there’s an intelligence that informs all of the jokes, no matter how foolish. Take last year’s episode when Dick (Lithgow) was trying to woo his girlfriend Mary’s (Jane Curtin) rich, cruel sister (”Will & Grace”’s Megan Mullally). A scene began with him suddenly on her private jet, agog, saying, ”When you said we would have Italian food, I never imagined you meant going to Italy! …And when you said we’d be going in your jet, I had no idea that you didn’t mean your subscription to Jet magazine!” And then, abruptly switching to a grave expression, ”But seriously, I would like to know what Stevie Wonder is up to.” Yes, it was nonsensical, but also a dead on mocking of a romantic movie cliché that desperately needed it.
The rest of the cast ebulliently followed Lithgow’s lead, casting off self respect and diving into their goofy parts. Granted, I can’t imagine a rosy future for French Stewart after he shucks his squinting role as Harry, but with his dopey persona he managed to pull off old fashioned dumb guy humor that would seem hamhanded elsewhere. In the finale, for example, he asks a woman out on a date, and she says, ”How about 9?” to which he replies, ”Slow down there, why don’t we start at one, and see how it goes.” I know, I know, you might want to slap me for saying that’s funny, but, hell, he made it work.
So damn my coworkers and damn the ratings, I’ll miss ”3rd Rock,” in all its burlesque nuttiness. Will you?