3rd Rock From The Sun's Biggest Challenge Was Keeping Its Stories Believable

What's more unbelievable than a sitcom about four aliens who land on Earth and assume human identities to study life on the planet? Add the fact that the human incarnations of these aliens don't exactly correspond with their identities (e.g. one extraterrestrial is a male trapped in a woman's body). This is the premise for the NBC's '90s hit show "3rd Rock from the Sun." This premise alone is so outrageous that if your suspension of disbelief isn't challenged by it, anything that happens on the show shouldn't be outside the realm of possibility, right? Well — if you can believe it — one of the show's biggest challenges was keeping its stories believable. 

The aliens-in-residence are the Solomon family: Dick (John Lithgow), Sally (Kristen), Harry (French Stewart), and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Each episode, the foursome gets embroiled in hijinks and wacky, slapstick scenarios as they try to fit in with society. John Lithgow, whose biggest rule was to never star in a sitcom, not only joined the show, but he also led the charge in accentuating its absurdity. His co-star, French Stewart, said sometimes they went overboard. In 1997, he explained to The Hartford Courant [via the LA Times]:

"The challenge is to keep it anchored. There are times where I've watched us and said, 'Oh, we've gone too far.' I think it always works best when it's anchored in some sort of reality and we can basically be eccentric ... It's a balancing act, and as you settle in you can forget and get sloppy."

Did they really go too far?

In one season 4 episode, the Solomons' mission leader, The Big Giant Head, grants Sally's request to be turned into a man; he swaps her body with Dick's. So essentially, we have an alien male in a human woman's body who switches body with another alien male in a human male body. Don't go back and reread that sentence; I know it is just as confusing as it is unbelievable. And the list goes on — the show had a successful six-season run, which means more than a hundred episodes worth of wildly unusual scenarios for our protagonists. So, I'm curious to know what did French Stewart see on set that made him go, "Oh, we've gone too far."

But to Stewart's point about ensuring that every story was anchored by some sort of realty, most — if not all — the goofball and hilarious dilemmas were grounded in the sense that they directly related to the characters' personal journeys to find their places as ordinary citizens on planet Earth. The body swap episode makes sense because Sally had long yearned to be a male again. The episode in which the Solomons handpick their own racial identities only to find out that they're Jewish fits the premise. Even the extra outlandish 3D episode, which was intended to send a not-so-thrilling message to NBC, centered on our alien characters having their first dreams, a natural human experience.

I never saw an episode of "3rd Rock from the Sun" that made me question the credibility of the show. Yeah, it was over the top, but given its premise, over the top is exactly what the show needed to be.