NBC hopes to sweeten up sweeps by transforming the TV show into eye candy

Some TV shows favor surprise weddings for their season finale. Others go the ”Who shot J.R.?” route. 3rd Rock From the Sun is putting John Lithgow in stirrups.

On a Culver City, Calif., soundstage, inside a whitewashed octagonal chamber, our star is helplessly strapped — spread- eagle — into an evil-looking chair sprouting probing devices. Jane Curtin, clad in a platinum-blond wig and a shiny black dominatrix outfit, slinks toward her quivering victim.

The creepy dream sequence calls for Curtin’s Dr. Albright to whip the inalienable truth out of Lithgow’s pajama-clad High Commander, but Curtin has quite visibly lost it. ”You’re dilating three centimeters!” she blurts through laughter. ”C’mon, John…push!” Lithgow, ever ready to ham it up, grunts accordingly: ”Oooooh!…”

We interrupt this disturbing scene because, well, you get the picture. 3rd Rock — NBC’s second-year comedy about ETs among us — is on the verge of delivering something quite out of the ordinary: a hyper-ambitious, hour-long season finale (May 18) with enough trippy 3-D special effects to summon Timothy Leary from the dead. It seems a no-brainer marriage, considering the otherworldly source; the No. 19-ranked 3rd Rock has already blasted a niche for itself as TV’s ripest over-the-top farce — a sort of live-action Simpsons with an LSD-laced pinch of the Marx Brothers. ”I don’t know whether they’re taking steroids over there,” muses NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield, ”but this is the can-do team of television.”

Make that the can-dough team. Coca-Cola-owned Barq’s root beer and Little Caesars pizza have partnered with NBC to distribute 3-D glasses as part of a $10 million promo campaign (available through the pizza chain and where Barq’s is sold). The episode’s lofty vision — which required about 150 workers and 24 elaborate sets on two soundstages — has driven the special-effects budget alone to $1.5 million (a normal half-hour episode costs less than a million). ”We’ve got full-scale planes, giant cityscapes, jungles, deserts, planets, and Jell-O vats,” declares Phil Joanou (U2: Rattle and Hum), the big-screen auteur hired to direct the special-effects sequences. ”We’re using the same techniques as Independence Day and Jurassic Park. There’s never been anything like this on television — 3-D or flat.”

Not everyone is looking at the 3rd Rock finale through rose-and blue-colored glasses, however. Over at rival ABC — why, yes, the same network that passed on 3rd Rock when it was a pilot — execs have been confidently plotting some 3-D tricks of their own, injecting more than half a dozen prime-time series (including The Drew Carey Show, Spin City, and Family Matters) with brief in-yer-face effects segments the week of May 5. ”Even if NBC’s had been on first, we weren’t really worried,” insists ABC programming VP Jeff Bader of the Wendy’s-sponsored promotional campaign. ”They’re doing one show — we’re doing an event.”

Both networks claim to have independently brainstormed the 3-D idea last summer, although ABC can brag that its technology offers greater depth than its rival’s. Notes ABC exec director of comedy programming Michael Becker: ”They can’t get Urkel reaching right into your living room.” (”I’ve gotta see that,” admits 3rd Rock‘s Kristen Johnston. ”C’mon, that’s classic!”) If you don’t wear the glasses, however, the Peacock holds the advantage: NBC’s technology, which requires cameras to move as they film, is unnoticeable; ABC’s effects, dependent as they are on a more traditional two-camera process, will look slightly blurry without the special red-and-blue lenses.

3rd Rock From the Sun
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