We have a problem, those of us who lived through the '90s to whom the term millennial is applied technically but warily, with enormous caveats, because we're nearing (or in) our thirties and didn't grow up on Drake and Josh and helicopter parenting like most other millennials. The '90s are back—they're everywhere—from Taylor Swift's crop tops to DJ Mustard plundering C+C Music Factory's estate sale for rock-bottom beats. Kendrick Lamar didn't even bother to sample Janet Jackson; he just rode right over her "Poetic Justice." Sugar Ray has a festival where Marcy Playground plays "Sex and Candy" over and over for 30 minutes while sunburned dads pound Coronas and angrily, wearily try to mosh. We're finally getting our due as the Greatest Generation.
But The Kids are doing it wrong. This '90s resurgence has only latched onto tiny fragments of our sprawling, beloved decade, missing huge swaths of what made it so deeply, purely weird, the last aesthetically distinct period before time became a flat circle and we settled into a generic sameness. (We're halfway through the 2010s now, and can you honestly think of any way to describe the aughts aside from "War on Terror-y"?) Pop-punk clowns Blink-182 get a critical reevaluation (and this week's news of a messy breakup leads to mass public mourning), while Lisa Loeb is a throwaway gag for Craig Robinson in the Hot Tub Time Machine sequel. Mom jeans and layered flannels are back, but not the haute-couture obsession that made multiple movies about designers and supermodels genuine box-office hits. They finally made a Dumb and Dumber sequel—20 years after the first one—but Dianne Wiest can't pay her rent. We're missing the layers and layers of style that made the '90s unique, a world where ravers and zoot-suit rioters and grunge kids all bumped up against one another.
At the center of that freaked-out Venn diagram was 3rd Rock from the Sun. From 1996 to 2001, the NBC sitcom was a 22-minute weekly distillation of everything the "Whatever" Decade had to offer, from the tail end of Reality Bites-style slacker worship to a glossy absurdism that required spending $1.5 million on 16 minutes' worth of fisheye-lensed 3D dream sequences. The series' conceit—a group of space aliens come to small-town Ohio to learn everything about humanity—allowed characters and plotlines to run wildly through clichés (the male leads are named Tom, Dick, and Harry) and social commentary (the blond, six-foot-tall Kristen Johnston delights in her ability to use sex appeal to get her way), all within the protective meta-bubble of the aliens' educational "mission." As the tabula rasa characters (including Tommy, played by a young, manic Joseph Gordon-Levitt) experienced Earthbound society for the first time, viewers could either remain detached—reveling in a pure, undistilled irony—or indulge the aliens' New Sincerity appreciation for everything from sneezing to daytime talk shows. It was a cultural choose-your-own-adventure.
The 3rd Rock episode that aired immediately after the Super Bowl came near the show's chronological midpoint (in the middle of the third of its six seasons) and critical apex. From the early '80s on, the Super Bowl lead-out slot had been reserved for premieres of new series, with the networks hoping that such a massive starter audience would reverberate for weeks, if not months. But after so many of the anointed shows tanked anyway (The Good Life, anyone?), NBC decided to double down in 1996 with an hour-long, star-studded episode of Friends. "The One After the Super Bowl" was the most successful post-game broadcast ever, and the most-watched episode of the series ever, pulling in 52.9 million viewers and a 47-percent audience share. (For what it's worth in our fractured, cable-heavy modern landscape, the biggest episode of The Big Bang Theory, whose cast members just negotiated a Friends-caliber contract renewal, pulled less than half that, not quite 20 million viewers). The next time NBC got the game, in 1998, they knew what to do.
The two-part episode is convoluted as fuck, and the execution is, in the broader context of the show, not that funny. But boy, is it '90s. A gang of incredibly beautiful women come to town and immediately attach themselves to all of the available (and decidedly not beautiful) men. Turns out they're Venusians, out to destroy the Earth by taking all of its stuff, and their secret weapon is to air the world's most powerful beer commercial during the Super Bowl. ("When you earth men are bombarded with images of hops, barley, breasts, and fun, you become weak and suggestible.") The Venusians, for your celebrity-cameo needs, are played by supermodels Irina Pantaeva, Angie Everhart, and Cindy Crawford; for your slacker-nostalgia needs, we have Beverly Johnson as their leader, Prell—the woman whose 1974 Vogue cover was the first for an African-American model, playing a character named for 1977's top-selling shampoo brand. For pop culture, there's a heavy dose of Austin Powers (1997) to all this, down to the massive female-symbol charm hanging off Sally's black-velvet choker when she goes undercover as a Venusian agent.
Football itself is an afterthought—the most we get is a shot of Dick (John Lithgow) rushing Greg Gumbel's post-game report from the field to warn the world of the impending invasion. There are a few cultural-cluelessness jokes about our main-character aliens not knowing about the big event happening on Sunday (a Broncos-Packers nail-biter in San Diego, for the record). The thrust of the episode was a double-length expansion of the gender-politics commentary that Johnston, as Sally, was handling fine on her own. Adding a handful of the world's most beautiful women was sex-appeal-pandering overkill—just as all the real Super Bowl commercials they were allegedly skewering needlessly stocked up on babes. Oh, the irony.
A world in which slapstick, high-concept aesthetics, cutting sarcasm, and straight talk all coexisted, 3rd Rock from the Sun is a portrait of its era, for better or worse. The series limped along after this peak moment, piling on absurdities (William Shatner as the aliens' leader, the Big Giant Head; parallel-universe plotlines) until it lost the delicate equilibrium that had kept that high concept afloat. Meanwhile, the world itself felt like an endless series of shark-jumps: Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton wearing each other's blood, those "Whassup" Bud commercials. Third Rock shed viewers and switched time slots until it was taken out behind the barn and cancelled on May 22, 2001. It's usually said that the '90s ended on 9/11; really, the end came four months earlier, and not a moment too soon.
Anyways, watch it for yourself. Part one:
Regan Hofmann is a food & drinks writer whose work appears at Punch, First We Feast, and whoever else is paying. She has opinions, which she shares on Twitter @regan_hofmann.
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