The funniest comedians (in my humble opinion) are those who scrutinize our society, show us our own, double-standards, bigotry and hypocrisy – and makes us laugh and learn. Comedy and satire have always been used to explore and expose the things that are really happening in our society.
The same goes for science fiction, but without the laughing (mostly). Good science fiction is about the world we live in, while pretending to be about something else.
What do you get, when you put these two together? Well, there are several examples of that, but the one I’m talking about here first aired 18 years ago and is a gem by the name of ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’. For those of you, who don’t know it: It’s premise is that a group of four alien explorers assumed human form to study humanity and now live as a family in Small Town America.
The thing I enjoy about this show, is how it has these great scenes of the aliens running into situations which are absolutely absurd to them, but so very meaningful to the humans they study.
There are things that are just plain funny:
And a lot of scenes which are funny, but also give you something to think about, if you let it sink in (in this case, how weird model poses are):
Of course, the show does have some problematic aspects, which can be attributed to being filmed in the 90’s. With the exception of one regular, but not main character, all characters are white. Nina, the black secretary of the high commander of the aliens, who disguises as a physics professor, is (stereotypically?) sassy and makes a couple of “Them crazy white people” remarks. This last part strikes me as odd, as there are no other black people or PoC around. As I grew up in an almost similar situation, with very few black people around, I can only assume that she went a little mad and is talking to herself. (Have no fear for me! When I was as kid, we never talked to myself.)
And then there’s the issue of gender stereotypes, which is either very much the consequence of the writers being born and raised in a Patriarchy or a subtly brilliant and brilliantly subtle social commentary. Against my better reasoning, I will go with the second: Dick, the high commander, is the bread winner and patriarch and absolutely full of himself. Sally, second-in-command and weapons officer, has become his sister and is the only woman in the group. She has some misgivings about this, but the role grows on her. However, she is the one who cooks and cleans (because that’s the woman’s job) and is more adept with babies. Harry is weird, but a ladies man. And Tommy is a typical teenage boy.
Now, I like to think that Dick actually does stand for the archetype of the patriarch (Get it? His name is ‘Dick’!), but he is a remnant of a falling system. He wants love, but he also wants obedience. He cannot have his will and his love at the same time. What stands in his way, is his lacking ability to take another perspective. His selfishness never leads to anything good, but he has huge difficulties adapting, because he simply doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to understand what is happening around him.
And Sally is a strong, powerful, (literal!) warrior woman. But she also blushes and giggles like a little girl, when confronted with attractive men. She, too, is caught between the social norms, those of a traditional woman and those of a modern woman.
Perhaps you can read anything into any show, but I think this one was way ahead it’s time and has aged quite well. Do go and check it out! (Youtube, I have heard, has a lot of the episodes. But ’twas a good show, so consider going for the DVD!) I didn’t even mention the great cast and their great performances: John Lithgow, Kristen Johnston, French Stewart, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Jane Curtin, Simbi Khali, Elmarie Wendel, Wayne Knight!
If you don’t fear mild spoilers, here are some of the performances of John Lithgow and Kristen Johnston: