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A Landing on Planet Limbo

NBC's beleaguered '3rd Rock From the Sun' has taped what could be its final episode ... or not.

April 01, 2001|GREG BRAXTON and T.L. STANLEY | Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer. T.L. Stanley is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

"3rd Rock' is that creature in a horror movie that doesn't die even as you keep shooting it with bullets."

-Quote from July 18 Variety appearing on the custom T-shirts worn on the set of NBC's "3rd Rock From the Sun" during its final week.

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On paper, it was merely the taping of Episode 138 of NBC's sci-fi farce "3rd Rock From the Sun." But for those fans, NBC executives, cast members and veterans of the show gathered on the January evening, it was so much more.

Emotional electricity gripped Stage 15 at CBS' Radford Studios in Studio City as the cast members took their opening bows before a cheering crowd crammed into bleachers. Actress Kristen Johnston wiped away tears and at one point ran off stage, covering her face with her hands.

"This is a moment in history," declared John Lithgow, who stars as Dick Solomon, high commander of four space aliens on a mission to study Earth, as he wandered into the adoring crowd. "I hope you realize that."

The filming of the episode-detailing how the aliens are summoned home after completing their mission-commenced with heightened emotion. Top NBC executives and producers who had formerly worked on the show looked on. Singer-songwriter Elvis Costello, a huge fan of the comedy, was there, having flown in from Ireland to do a cameo.

The final scene, which found the four aliens seated in their "spaceship," a Rambler convertible, brought more sniffles-a similar moment had ended Episode 1 in January 1996. Co-star French Stewart became teary. After "Cut!" was yelled, the cast, along with Bonnie and Terry Turner, the show's creators, and other executive producers, gathered together and launched into an impromptu rendition of the song from the final scene, reaching a crescendo with, "Back to the heavens in our mighty spaceship!"

With that note, "3rd Rock From the Sun" came to the end of its season-and quite possibly the end of its run. After being bounced around the NBC schedule like the wildly caroming planets seen in between segments each week on the show-landing in 18 time slots during the course of six seasons-the season finale is designed to give the show a final send-off if there is no next year. Many of the producers and cast members have already moved on or agreed to other projects, and the tearful farewells at the January taping are just another indication of the dominant sentiment, that the series will not be back.

However, NBC, the cast and producers are currently caught between a "3rd Rock" and a hard place.

Although the network obviously feels the marginally popular series has run its course to the point that they allowed the producers to create a "final episode," it still has not officially ended the show's prime-time run. "3rd Rock From the Sun" could be revived for another season.

NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said recently, "We are still committed to '3rd Rock' and have not made a decision about its future. And we will not make a final decision until May when we see what our development is like." Which means, if the new situation comedies NBC has in the works fall short, '3rd Rock' could be back.

"Yes, we're in a state of limbo," said Bonnie Turner. "The network indicated to us a while ago that our chances of coming back are slim, so as a courtesy, they gave us the opportunity to write a series finale. But the odds are we will come back if their development doesn't pan out. We'll be just like the old warhorse we've always been. We'll just write our way out of the finale."

In the meantime, many of those associated with the show are left with a bittersweet weightlessness. Some contend that NBC's uncertainty about the show's future is symbolic of the network's treatment of "3rd Rock" throughout its run. Now they are caught in the "Did we say farewell or just goodbye?" game.

"It's rather melancholy," said Lithgow a few days before the taping. "We're really not allowed to feel anything, except for little spasms of grief."

Lithgow and others associated with the comedy said "3rd Rock's" mix of slapstick, farce and over-the-top acting, coupled with its literally out-of-this world premise, has never been an easy fit with NBC's core urban-based comedies and dramas revolving around photogenic yuppies. And the network's continual shifting of the show's time period wore down the fan base and weakened the comedy's long-term potential.

"Putting us in this position now at the end is very frustrating, and typical of NBC to be this disrespectful to us," said Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who played teenager Tommy Solomon, the youngest of the aliens. "Ever since the second season, it just seemed that they didn't care about us. I'm ready to move on."

"They have mishandled it badly," said Lithgow, winner of three Emmys for outstanding actor in a comedy series for his role as Solomon, who has assumed the body and identity of a college physics professor to hide his true mission. "From the beginning, I don't think NBC knew what to do with us. We are an eccentric, one-of-a-kind show."

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