3rd Rock From The Sun's 3D Episode Was Meant To Send A Message To The Network

It's common for any long-running television sitcom to eventually "jump the shark." But to do it in 3D? That takes some real moonstones, and the cast of "3rd Rock from the Sun" did it in sublime fashion.

After its first season, "3rd Rock from the Sun" was nominated for three Emmys, with star John Lithgow winning Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. By the show's second season, that number increased to eight nominations and five wins, including a nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Despite the early success of the show, NBC decided that the final episode of season 2 needed to be big — so big that they brought in film director Phil Joanou to direct 16 minutes of 3D sequences for a two-episode special entitled "A Nightmare on Dick Street, Parts I & II."

Although the show was known for its eccentric nature, the creative team didn't share NBC's enthusiasm over the idea. In a contrarian display, the cast played the sequences to the hilt, sending a message to the network about what they thought of the 3D stunt.

It had been tried before

The promise of 3D television has always been purely a gimmick, and it didn't take long after its arrival for producers to give 3D a shot. In 1953, ABC aired the first 3D broadcast when a 3D version of the sci-fi series "Space Patrol" aired live on the Los Angeles affiliate KECA-TV in conjunction with the annual National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters meeting. The experiment was in response to the movie 3D craze that kicked off a year prior with the movie "Bwana Devil."

It would be almost 30 years before the first national broadcast in 3D with the 1982 airing of the 3D movie "Revenge of the Creature." Stations across the country partnered with local stores and restaurants to promote the event and hand out anaglyph 3D glasses (the ones with red and blue lenses). New Orleans independent station WGNO claimed the movie marked "what could be a whole new phase in television home entertainment." Spoiler: It did not.

And who can forget the Super Bowl XXIII 3D halftime show in 1989, poorly named "BeBop Bamboozled in 3-D." The program, sponsored by Coca-Cola and bookended by 3D Diet Coke commercials, featured a character named "Elvis Presto" and was described by the Washington Post as "lavish and goofy." My childhood memory of the show is that the anticipation of the gimmick was exponentially better than the halftime show itself.

With 3D firmly established as a poorly received gimmick in television, it makes sense that the creators and cast of "3rd Rock from the Sun" were frustrated when discovering their Season 2 finale was going to be in 3D.

It was purposely made to be outlandish

There are two very different sides to the "3rd Rock from the Sun" 3D season finale, and they're as different as red and blue lenses in anaglyph glasses. NBC saw it as an easy way to boost ratings during May sweeps (one of four periods where TV audiences are measured for advertising purposes). EW called the promotion "a no-brainer marriage" for a show that was "TV's ripest over-the-top farce." Then-NBC president Warren Littlefield agreed, saying, "I don't know whether they're taking steroids over there, but this is the can-do team of television."

Apparently, Littlefield didn't talk to the folks involved with making "3rd Rock from the Sun," who had a different opinion. To them, it was viewed as nothing more than a stunt, and as history had proven, one that would likely fail. According to The New York Times, series star John Lithgow felt like it took away from what they were trying to do with the show. The actor said:

”We felt like we were doing these great science experiments, and nobody saw them. The idea of a 3D episode was something imposed on us, so Bonnie [Turner, show creator] said 'O.K., we'll do one. But we'll do one that will make sure nobody will dare do it again.'"

Show creators Bonnie and Terry Turner responded with outlandish concepts for the episodes, including a 1940s style dance routine and a spoof of the 1985 Terry Gilliam dystopian film "Brazil."

Was it worth it?

The 3D sequences in the two-episode finale cost NBC $1.5 to produce and they spent another $10 million on promotion. The decision to spend upwards of $11 million on a gimmick episode is beyond curious. With a cast that featured veterans John Lithgow and Jane Curtin, and a slew of young talent with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kristen Johnston, and French Stewart, it's a wonder why NBC felt it couldn't promote a show based on the cast alone.

So what was NBC's return on investment? According to USA Today's Nielsen ratings listings, the 3D episode of "3rd Rock from the Sun" came in second in its 8 PM Eastern time slot behind the CBS mega-hit "Touched by an Angel" with a 12.3 rating (1 ratings point = 970,000 TV households). Despite the visual stunt and accompanying advertising blitz, it was just the fourth-highest-rated episode of the season. For the season, the show typically scored a rating between 8 and 11 with the occasional jump above 12 and a season premiere high of 13.8. You might say the experiment was a bigger nightmare for NBC than Dick's dream sequence from the episode.

Despite the lengthy absence of 3D in television, the "3rd Rock from the Sun" finale wasn't the first time the gimmick was used in 1997 primetime television.

Will we see it again?

Curiously, ABC incorporated 3D into several of their primetime programs with an entire "3D Week" campaign during the May 1997 sweeps period. The fact that we don't have 3D beamed into our home each week tells you how successful the pricey stunts were for both networks. And the 3D television fad came and went in the early 2010s, with ESPN and others trying 3D-exclusive channels. None lasted more than three years.

If NBC's aliens taught us anything, it's that 3D in television doesn't work. But the network refuses to listen. In 2009, NBC tried capitalizing on a few Super Bowl 3D commercials with a 3D episode of "Chuck" the following night. In what was likely the introduction of 3D in primetime television for many millennials, audiences got a gaudy, unnecessary 3D perspective of Chuck's biggest fantasy.

So will we see 3D on television again? I'd say it's a safe bet to keep your glasses ready. Now that the streaming era has drastically changed the way we watch broadcast television, it's only a matter of time before one of the networks uses a 3D stunt to boost its primetime ratings. And when it inevitably fails, they won't be able to say that the aliens didn't warn us.