3rd Rock from the Sun was a hugely popular 90s sitcom. The show was broadcast on NBC between 1996 and 2001 and followed the life of four aliens. The aliens were sent to earth by their home planet to study humans and what they consider to be the most boring planet in the universe, Planet Earth. The aliens pretend to be a regular American family in order to study life at close quarters.
The alien family make their home in the fictional town of Rutherford, Ohio. Living in a small apartment, they set about their mission by submerging themselves in human life. Towards the end of the show's run, the aliens almost forget about their mission, choosing instead to become embroiled in their human lives.
The leader of the mission is Dick Solomon, played by movie star and respected actor, John Lithgow. Dick has a job as Professor of Physics at a local university. The information officer, Tommy Solomon, takes on the persona of a teenager and has to enroll in the local school. The role of Tommy is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt who would later become an acclaimed movie actor, starring in Christopher Nolan's, Inception.
Completing the mission team are Sally and Harry who take the role of work-shy thirty somethings. Following the tradition of Mork and Mindy, the family have to make regular reports to their home planet. These reports are made directly to their boss, known as the 'big giant head.' Although often unseen, the 'head' is played by Star Trek legend, William Shatner.
Much the appeal and humor of the show comes from the fact that the central characters' personalities are in direct contradiction of the human forms they have chosen to adopt. The mission leader, Dick, adopts a loving and paternal form, however in reality he is self centered, egotistical and selfish. The oldest member of the alien expedition is Tommy, who takes on the form of a nerdy teenager.
The show's main theme of humor is derived from the team's struggle to adapt to the social cultures and traditions of their human neighbors. In trying to understand and copy those customs and social norms, the aliens make countless mistakes and gaffes. Part of the problem seems to be they are taking much of their information directly from TV shows and movies.
There is also a huge disconnect between human life on earth and the life the aliens are used to. Although there aren't many references to their home planet, we do know there is minimal use of emotion. One reference is made to sexual reproduction involving a business like transaction where genetic material is posted from a father to a mother. This lack of interaction and emotion in their home life, makes their struggle on earth that more interesting and funny.
The show's success saw it become America's third favorite sitcom for a while, closely behind Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of Queens. However, its popularity waned somewhat after the first three seasons, despite the show winning several Emmy awards. This may well have been down to the fact that once the initial joke of being an alien on earth was spent, there simply wasn't anywhere else to go.