The premise of the show revolves around an extraterrestrial research expedition attempting to live as a normal human family in the fictional city of Rutherford, Ohio, said to be 52 mi (84 km) outside of Cleveland, where they live in an attic apartment. Humor was principally derived from the aliens' attempts to study human society and, because of their living as humans themselves while on Earth, to understand the human condition. This show reflects human life from the perspective of aliens and many sources of humor are from the learning experiences the alien characters have. Most of the episodes are named after the protagonist "Dick". In later episodes, they are more accustomed to Earth and often are more interested in their human lives than in their mission.
The show also takes humor from its mirroring of all human anthropological expeditions and their assumptions of superiority to the "natives", as well as their inability to distinguish themselves from the natives. Dr. Mary Albright (Jane Curtin) is a professor of anthropology at (fictional) Pendelton State University, and many of the issues with which the four aliens struggle appear in her conversation and work. Furthermore, these four alien researchers end up looking more or less like joyriders as they get drawn further and further into human life.
Dick Solomon (John Lithgow), the High Commander and leader of the expedition, is the family provider as a physics professor at Pendelton (with Ian Lithgow, John Lithgow's oldest son, playing one of his less successful students). Information officer and oldest member of the crew Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has been given the body of a teenager and is forced to enroll in high school (later college), leaving security officer Sally (Kristen Johnston) and "the one with the transmitter in his head", Harry (French Stewart) to spend their lives as 20-somethings hanging out at home and bouncing through short-term jobs. The show also involves their relationships with humans, mostly their love interests.
The family often communicates through Harry with their off-world (and usually unseen) boss, the Big Giant Head, who when he finally visits Earth, appears in the body of William Shatner. Harry unexpectedly (and often in inconvenient circumstances) stands up, his arms stiff (acting as the antenna), and proclaims: "Incoming message from the Big Giant Head."
Almost all the episodes stem from the Solomons' difficulties, and successes, in integrating themselves into Earth culture and understanding human customs — they are always desperately trying to "read" humans correctly, and when they succeed (or think they succeed), they are ecstatic.
Details about their alien nature are rarely given and inconsistent, except to reinforce the idea that their former lives were almost barren of emotion, unlike most of the relationships humans have with each other. Their original forms, for example, are described as nonsexual, with reproduction a matter of sending packets of genetic material to each other in the mail. Leaders like the Big Giant Head are unelected and assumed infallible (in fact, it is stated that politicians on their planet are chosen by seeing which one can outrun the giant fireball). The upshot is that living in an Earth culture provides the Solomons with an almost intolerable degree of emotional stimulation and conflict. Although they are ill-equipped to handle such an emotional maelstrom, they love it.
Several episodes feature send-ups of TV and films. For example, in the episode "Dick's Big Giant Headache", both Dick and the Big Giant Head mention seeing something on the wing of the plane after having traveled by airline. That was a nod to both Lithgow and Shatner having played the same role of the passenger who sees a gremlin on the wing in The Twilight Zone (Shatner in the original story and Lithgow in a remake).
Occasionally, references would be made to specific features of the aliens' abilities and of their experiences on their own world, which built up a common mythology for the show. The theme of the idiot savant repeatedly resurfaces, since each member of the family makes up for their extreme naïveté with some special skill owing to their alien nature.
Though Dick's understanding of physics is far weaker than his "son" Tommy's, it is implied that even his basic scientific knowledge makes advanced Earth physics appear rudimentary, leading to his becoming respected in his field despite his childish behavior. A segment from an episode has him reading a passage from A Brief History of Time and laughing at Stephen Hawking's description of virtual particles quipping, "These Earth people will swallow 'anything'." Even so, Dick is often shown as the member of the family with the least to recommend in terms of his ability, leading them to question his right to command. Sally, for instance, is depicted as not only having an attractive body (she is sometimes described as being Amazonian), but also being amazingly physically strong and fit, able to fight and defeat large groups of men much larger than her (even when doing so is unnecessary and culturally inappropriate).
Tommy, although 14 years old at the show's beginning, is actually the oldest of the four and was assigned the role of teenager because it was felt he was the only one who could handle its stress. He has the ability of near-instant recall and has an encyclopedic knowledge about Earth society, which often seems useless to his colleagues, but ensures that he remains a straight-A student.
Harry's behavior is naive, endearing, and bizarre. Somehow, this mental condition gives him an inexplicable sex appeal for women and makes him the only Solomon with any talent in the arts – Harry often seems to have a knack for all fine arts, including music and theater. He is consistently shown as being a very talented painter, especially as a portraitist and caricaturist. He often seems like the "wise fool" of folk narratives – the one everyone calls stupid who ends up knowing what is really important.
Each alien becomes involved in various relationships with humans throughout the course of the series, primarily focusing on Dick's infatuation– at first met with disgust and then, finally, reciprocation– with anthropology professor Dr. Mary Albright (Jane Curtin), who shares an office with him. Much is often made of Mary's angst, insecurity, and neuroses brought on by a lifetime of studying the human condition, as well as an unstable relationship with her parents, and the cheerful, childlike naïveté displayed by Dick, the primary factor in him that attracts her.
Sally similarly acquires a long-term boyfriend, Officer Don Orville (Wayne Knight), an overweight and incompetent police officer who becomes attracted to her after several incidents in which he is forced to confront or arrest the Solomons for various crimes. Sally's attraction to him has little to do with his physical appearance and more to do with his perceived power and authority as a police officer (and in particular, his uniform.) The two generally have conversations while speaking in a manner similar to an old 1930s crime drama.
Tommy manages an on-again, off-again relationship with classmate August Leffler (Shay Astar), a reserved ice queen teenager and later the more bubbly Alissa Strudwick (Larisa Oleynik).
Harry has a relationship with his landlady Mrs. Dubcek's (Elmarie Wendel) daughter Vicki (played by Jan Hooks), in an on-screen relationship that often features overly melodramatic scenes. Harry, despite no apparent skills in the art of seduction, also manages to foil a plot to dissolve the Earth by seducing Mascha (Cindy Crawford), one of a coven of strikingly beautiful Venusians who tried to overthrow the Earth by seducing its men into giving them everything of value.
Some humor comes from the fact that at some point in the show, most of the character relationships have been mixed up — a strange attraction is briefly shown between Mary and Tommy because of their similar passion for the social sciences and the study of humanity, in which Tommy chooses to step aside and let Dick pursue her instead. Nina (Simbi Khali), Dick's assistant who primarily serves as his straight man and comic foil, is seen briefly having a fling with Harry. Mrs. Dubcek, who is at first merely a source of comic relief, her own bizarre foibles and imperceptibly causing her to be a terrible role model for proper human behavior to the Solomons, is also revealed to have had a fling with Harry.
Initially, the only reference to the aliens' true forms is a comment made in the first episode, when upon discovering that human heads cannot swivel to 180°, Dick asks: "Then how do they lick their backs?". As time went on, the show began to intersperse concrete references to the aliens' nature and their home world which played a role in affecting the show's plot. They usually described their original bodies as "gelatinous purple tubes" that lacked sex organs or most of the forms of physical definition that humans possess. In fact, when Sally asks why she had to be the woman, Dick reminds her why, telling her, "It's because you lost."
Evidently, individuals in their species are so near-identical to each other that the Solomons were unaware of the concept of race or ethnicity, and had never invented one for themselves, leading them to attempt to choose one (a source of humor since the Solomons all appear quite white). Mrs. Dubcek enlightens them when she refers to her second husband as "one of you people ... you know, Jewish." She figured this out from their surname, Solomon. Amazed, Harry exclaims, "Mazel tov!"
The Solomons encounter other seemingly alien beings, most notably, Jell-O, or when in one episode Dick and a friend of Mary's remain confused throughout—they know they are "different"—but Dick thinks "alien" and the friend thinks "gay". Their first encounters with snow and dreaming cause general hysteria.
3rd Rock maintained a constant ensemble cast, the four main characters are Dick, Sally, Tommy, and Harry. Several other main characters who left or joined the show through its original run supplemented these four, and numerous guest stars and one-time characters supplemented all of them. The three male aliens' names are a play on the phrase "Tom, Dick and Harry" which is a placeholder for multiple unspecified people. (When Don eventually notices this, they look uncomfortable and Tommy says, "Well, it's not like it's a deliberate attempt on our part to seem average," which is of course exactly what it is.)John Lithgow as Dick Solomon: Though the High Commander and head of the expedition to Earth, he is often the most childlike member of the group, being, ironically, the youngest of the crew, despite being the oldest family member (at least appears to be the oldest due to his body). Much of the behavioral or societal-based troubles faced by the crew in their mission while on Earth frequently arise from some juvenile act perpetrated by Dick, troubles which in turn are forced to be overcome by the entire troupe with a great deal of reluctance.
Kristen Johnston as Sally Solomon: With a rank of lieutenant, she is the security officer and second-in-command. She has been called Dick's sister, but was sometimes introduced as Tommy's sister earlier in the series, and, on one occasion, claimed to be his mother, although never Dick's daughter and certainly not his spouse; failure to clarify the exact relationship between Tommy, Harry, and Sally led to humorous confusion whenever either Harry or Sally attempted to act as Tommy's guardian. Sally was chosen to be the woman because she apparently lost some sort of contest and was not too thrilled about it; while the alien species is described as asexual, Sally seems to have a harder time trying to figure out womanhood than the others do manhood. She files a request to be made male early in the mission, though later decides she liked being a woman. A later episode had Dick and her switching bodies on orders from the Big Giant Head, which caused much confusion both on their parts, as they had gotten used to their respective genders while on Earth, and the other characters, as they could not get used to Sally acting like Dick and vice versa.
French Stewart as Harry Solomon: Originally, he was not part of the mission, but just happened to go for the ride because an extra seat was available. Later, it becomes known that a chip is in his head, and he becomes the Communicator or Transmitter. Occasionally, he gets a message from the Solomons' leader, the Big Giant Head, and shakes violently in the middle of a sentence and squats down, with his arms at 90° angles, declaring "Incoming message from the Big Giant Head!", before going through the motions of delivering the message, which always ends with a violent sneeze. He poses as Dick and Sally's brother, and Tommy's uncle. Harry is often known to be the simplest family member, is occasionally impulsive and misunderstands people. He is also prone to misfortune. Though he seems to fit in on Earth with the earthlings better than anyone else, this is implied because he is seen as dimwitted. Whether he is really dimwitted or just more sensitive to his surroundings is unclear, however.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tommy Solomon: Information officer and third-in-command behind Sally, Tommy plays the role of Dick's adolescent son, yet he is the oldest and smartest of all the aliens. Throughout the series, Tommy continually reminds the others of his superior intelligence and greater age. Gordon-Levitt left the series (after the fifth season concluded) as a primary character, only appearing as a recurring character in just over half the episodes of season six. In the show, this is explained by Tommy's graduating from high school and moving out to college.
Jane Curtin as Dr. Mary Albright: Dick's colleague and on-and-off girlfriend, Mary is aware that Dick is an insensitive idiot, but appreciates his joie de vivre and quirkiness. Reference is often made to the insecurity caused by her bad parenting, and the fact that before Dick arrived, she was known for sleeping around, and had even been nicknamed "Dr. Slutbunny".
Simbi Khali as Nina Campbell (seasons 3-6, recurring previously): Dick's and Mary's administrative assistant, she finds Dick beyond the pale.
Elmarie Wendel as Mrs. Mamie Dubcek (seasons 3-6, recurring previously): Mrs. Dubcek is a "blast from the past", namely the '60s. She boasts of having danced naked with Jack Kerouac in a cage. In addition to being the landlady, she is a friend to the Solomons.
Wayne Knight as Officer Don Leslie Orville (seasons 3-6, recurring previously): As Sally's boyfriend, he is an underachieving, spineless police officer, who has a talent for romanticizing his rather mundane job. Sally is completely enraptured by his stories, and is reduced to simpering and giggling around him.
David DeLuise as Bug Pollone: one of Dick's students (DeLuise's father Dom appears as Bug's father in one episode.)
Ian Lithgow as Leon: one of Dick's students, played by John Lithgow's oldest son
Danielle Nicolet as Caryn: one of Dick's students
Chris Hogan as Aubrey Pitman: one of Dick's students
Ileen Getz as Dr. Judith Draper: professor at Pendelton and colleague of Mary
Shay Astar as August Leffler: Tommy's first girlfriend (in seasons 1–3, sparsely appears in seasons 3 and 4)
Larisa Oleynik as Alissa Strudwick: Tommy's second girlfriend (in seasons 4–6)
Ron West as Dr. Vincent Strudwick: Alissa's father and rival to Dick (in seasons 2–6)
William Shatner as The Big Giant Head: the aliens' boss, he goes by the name Stone Philips on the Earth (in seasons 4 and 5), and is later revealed to be Dick's home planet biological father
Jan Hooks as Victoria Marie "Vicki" Dubcek daughter of Ms. Dubcek, Harry's on-and-off girlfriend (seasons 2-4) who ends up having a child with the Big Giant Head (in season 5)
John Cleese as Dr. Liam Neesam: a professor who briefly has a relationship with Mary, and is later revealed to be an evil alien (in seasons 3 and 6)
Chyna as Janice: a muscular female police officer who is briefly Harry's girlfriend
Michael Milhoan as Coach Strickland: high school PE teacher at Tommy's high school, enjoys picking on Tommy and other unathletic students
The show's opening theme music was composed by Ben Vaughn, and is a 1950s-style rock-and-roll instrumental piece; the theme was extended slightly in season three, when Simbi Khali, Elmarie Wendel, and Wayne Knight were officially made series regulars and added to the opening credits. Alternate versions of the theme were used during the course of the show's run. For Christmas episodes, jingle bells were added to the theme. For the season-six two-part episode "Dick'll Take Manhattan", a modern jazz underline version of the theme was used. The only major change to the theme was in season five, when the original Ben Vaughn version was replaced by a big band cover of the theme, performed by the group Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and was only used during that season. During season one, James Earl Jones provided a voice introduction describing the crew.
The opening title sequence, which was produced by the London graphic design firm SVC Television, opens with computerized shots of planets and celestial bodies, some either with the planets dancing or moving in warp speed. It opens and closes with a shot of Earth (which at the open is where the show's title logo appears, after a sunburst appears on the side of Earth). For the episode "Dick'll Take Manhattan" only, the typeface of the cast and creators' names was altered.
The six seasons had 139 episodes in the series.
Of 139 episodes of the series, 108 contained "Dick" in the title (in reference to John Lithgow's character). While some of the episode titles with "Dick" in them are innocent (i.e., "Tom, Dick and Mary", "Dick Is From Mars, Sally Is From Venus"), others are more risque and often are double entendres (i.e., "Sensitive Dick", "A Dick Replacement", "Frozen Dick", "Shall We Dick"), due to the fact that the word "Dick" is both a short form of Richard and a slang term for penis. One episode from season six used an abbreviation for a title, "B.D.O.C.", since the full title ("Big Dick on Campus") was deemed too risque.
During the show's sixth and final season, John Lithgow commented to several media outlets that "3rd Rock" had been moved to more than fifteen different time slots in six years, causing its ratings to decrease substantially.
In the United States, the series is distributed for syndication by Carsey-Warner Distribution, and entered broadcast syndication in September 1999, where it continued until the fall of 2004. In 2004, the show moved into limited-run barter syndication, where it remains; The Program Exchange handles distribution for Carsey-Werner. ABC Family aired reruns between 2002 and 2006. Reruns of the series aired on TV Land from 2008 through 2010. In the fall of 2010, ReelzChannel began airing the series. This series rerun is now also aired on Malaysia's national broadcast TV channel RTM's TV2 in the 12:30am time slot on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. In the United Kingdom, the series originally aired on BBC Two from 1996 to 2001 and ITV2 later repeated the entire series from 2005 to 2006. Cable network Virgin Media currently has 40 episodes from seasons 1 and 2 available 'on demand' from the Comedy Central menu option. The series began airing from the beginning on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom from May 12, 2014. A repeat of Channel 4's episodes are broadcast on 4Seven. In the Republic of Ireland, 3e run reruns of the show during the late night slot after Conan at 12:30 am. Netflix made the complete series available online in March 2011. It was removed several months later in the fall of 2011 but returned on March 15, 2015. In the fall of 2011, Canada's TVTropolis cable channel began airing the show, and featured a long weekend marathon run of episodes. The entire series is also available in the United States on Hulu Plus and Netflix. The Netflix and Hulu Plus streams of the show are presented in a 16x9 aspect ratio and HD. It's also set to air on Laff.
Anchor Bay Entertainment released all six seasons of 3rd Rock from the Sun on DVD for the first time in 2005-2006. Seasons 1 & 2 contain the edited, syndicated versions of the episodes instead of the original broadcast versions. As of 2010, these releases have been discontinued and are out of print. On these DVDs, the bloopers segments (on the last disc of each season) are in 16:9 format, indicating the series may have been filmed in 16:9 format.
On May 4, 2011, Mill Creek Entertainment announced they had acquired the rights to re-release the series on DVD in Region 1. They have subsequently re-released seasons 1-4. These releases contain the unedited, original broadcast versions of the episodes. Seasons 5 and 6 were re-released on January 8, 2013, containing the same edited versions of episodes seen on the Anchor Bay release.
On May 14, 2013, Mill Creek released 3rd Rock from the Sun - The Complete Series on DVD in Region 1.
Network DVD released all six seasons on DVD in the UK. While seasons 1-4 feature unedited versions of the episodes, seasons 5 and 6 feature syndicated, edited episodes.
Magna Home Entertainment released all six seasons on DVD in Australia between 2005 and 2007. These releases have been discontinued and are now out of print.
On November 15, 2010, Beyond Home Entertainment re-released all six seasons on DVD in Region 4. The complete collection was also released three days later, on November 18.
As of January 2012, all seasons are available through Netflix. On February 4, the series was removed, although returned to availability on March 15, 2015.
Seasons 1 and 2 are available to download in the UK through iTunes.
In 1997, 3rd Rock won the most Emmy Awards (five from eight nominations) for a television series:1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 — Outstanding Lead Actor — Comedy Series — John Lithgow
1997, 1998, 1999 — Outstanding Supporting Actress — Comedy Series — Kristen Johnston
1996, 1997 — Outstanding Hairstyling for a Series — Pixie Schwartz
1996 — Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series — James Burrows
1998 — Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series — Terry Hughes
1997 — Outstanding Special Visual Effects — Glen Bennett, Visual Effects Artists; Patrick Shearn, Visual Effects Supervisor; Chris Staves, Visual Effects Artists
1997, 1999, 2000 — Outstanding Sound Mixing — Comedy Series
1998 — Outstanding Sound Mixing — Comedy Series — "A Nightmare on Dick Street"
1997, 1998 — Outstanding Costume Design — Series — Melina Root
1997, 1998 — Outstanding Comedy Series
1997 — Outstanding Choreography — Marguerite Derricks
1998 — Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series — Jan Hooks as Vicki Dubcek
1998 — Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series — John Cleese as Dr. Neesam
1999, 2000 — Outstanding Multi-camera Picture Editing for a Series
1999 — Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series — Kathy Bates as Charlotte Everly and Laurie Metcalf as Jennifer
1999 — Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series — William Shatner as the Big Giant Head
2000 — Outstanding Cinematography for a Multi-camera Series
John Lithgow received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for each year the show was broadcast, winning the Emmy in 1996, 1997, and 1999. Accepting the 1999 award, he said, "Many wonderful things have happened to me in my life, but the two best are 3rd Rock and my dear family."
Golden Globe Awards1997 — Best Actor in a Television Comedy or Musical — John Lithgow
Screen Actors Guild Awards1996, 1997 — Best Male Actor — Comedy Series — John Lithgow
A tie-in book, 3rd Rock from the Sun: The Official Report On Earth, was released in 1997. It is essentially a report of the Solomon's findings during their stay on Earth. Primarily a source of humor, the book includes such features as "What to do if you encounter Jell-O", a fan biography of Katie Couric written by Harry, and Sally's version of a Cosmo quiz. Portions of the book are included in the booklets inside each season set of the series.
Despite the report's being set within the fictional world of 3rd Rock, a foreword written by John Lithgow himself is included in which he explains how he was abducted by the 3rd Rock producers and forced to work on their production. A Post-it note is attached to the foreword, apparently written by Dick Solomon, stating he does not know why the foreword is there, but that Lithgow is an Earth actor who appeared in "some helicopter movie".