'Third Rock' a stone's throw beyond dumb

January 09, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"Third Rock From the Sun" is a situation comedy about four aliens who have settled on Earth to make bad jokes about sex.

If this is your idea of a good time, then by all means, go for it.

Others, however, may find themselves pondering a set of vexing questions raised by this new NBC series, premiering at 8:30 tonight on WBAL, Channel 11.

For instance: What were John Lithgow and Jane Curtin thinking?

These are two talented people who bring far more to "Third Rock" than it deserves. Are times really so bad that they need to do this sort of slumming?

For another instance: Have producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner run out of ideas? These are the same people responsible for "Roseanne," "Cybill," and "Grace Under Fire" -- three series that have been among the best on television.

Any resemblance between them and "Third Rock" would be hard to find.

Tonight's debut episode sets up the premise: Four aliens are visiting Earth to learn everything possible about what they believe is a pretty useless planet (so why are they here in the first place?).

None are very familiar with human forms, leading to a ton of lame jokes that, surprisingly, almost all have to do with sex. One alien takes the form of a buxom, long-limbed woman (Kristen Johnston), whose breasts lead to all sorts of witty asides. One inhabits the body of an adolescent (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and finds puberty something of a strange experience, although not without its pleasures. Another becomes the perennially puzzled Harry, whose role model is obviously the Bull character from "Night Court."

Their leader has been transformed into Dr. Dick Solomon (Lithgow), family patriarch and professor of physics at an Ohio university. He shares an office with another professor, Dr. Mary Albright (Curtin), to whom he feels strangely attracted.

Said attraction, of course, leads to even more hilarity. Har, har.

Finally, Drs. Solomon and Albright share a secretary, who specializes in wisecracks and witty asides. The mirth continues.

Want to know how funny this all is? Try this sample hilarious line: "This rug has seen more butts than Santa Claus' lap."

I didn't stop laughing for days.

It's hard to figure where the makers of "Third Rock" believe they went right. The humor never rises above high-school-lunchroom level, and even then it's not over-the-top enough to make it very appealing. The actors are talented enough -- Lithgow and Curtin certainly have nothing left to prove, and Gordon-Levitt seems to be that rarest of finds, a young actor who knows about timing.

What they're doing in this mess is one of those questions for the ages.

And here's another idea to ponder: "Third Rock From the Sun" airs during the supposed "family hour." This should certainly provoke some lively discussion among mom, dad and the kids.

Kid: "Mom, why does that man have his nose pressed against that woman's backside?"

Mom: "Golly, maybe it's time you went and did some homework."

There have been worse shows on television, maybe worse shows from even more unexpected sources. But it's hard to imagine.

One good thing about "Third Rock From the Sun," it'll free up even more people to watch what's on the other channels.

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