Older Women Week: Aging and Existential Crisis in ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’

Poster for 3rd Rock from the Sun

This is a guest post by Jenny Lapekas.

3rd Rock from the Sun follows the story of four aliens sent to earth in human form to study the ways of humans. Their mission was originally supposed to last only one day, but the High Commander, Dick Solomon (the delightful John Lithgow) extends it to six hilarious seasons filled with the flamboyant comedy and intelligent, pithy dialogue we rarely see or expect anymore in the American sitcom. What the crew doesn’t anticipate are both the joys and inconveniences of their human bodies: emotions, sexuality and relationships. Dick immediately falls for his office mate at Pendleton University, Dr. Mary Albright (Jane Curtin), who finds him pompous, arrogant and strange beyond belief. Although Dick mocks Mary’s thesis, wrecks her car and even breaks up with her to date the university’s new English professor, Mary comes to love Dick and can never keep away from him for too long. Harry (French Stewart), the “Transmitter,” is the clueless brother, Sally (Kristen Johnston), “Security Officer,” is the seductive but unrefined sister, and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), “Information Officer,” is the eldest of the crew, but confined to an adolescent earth body. Throughout the series’ run, Jane Curtin was in her 50s, and the show’s treatment of her age reflects this.
Upon their arrival, the aliens count their fingers and toes in their Rambler.

Mary is a powerful presence in the series; she’s an attractive, articulate college professor with a Ph.D. and the heart of Dick Solomon, the High Commander in his wacky group of interplanetary adventurers. While Harry is undoubtedly a queer figure in his role as the buffoon within the somehow functional family unit, and Nina, Mary’s assistant, arguably remains stuck in her typecast role as the “sassy, black woman,” Mary’s position as an older woman propels her through the series as ironically naive, desperate for acceptance from a band of outsiders, and hopelessly in love with Dick. Although Mary is initially disliked by Dick’s family, Sally, Harry and Tommy warm up to her after she proves that her earnest sensibilities compliment Dick’s rashness, exuberance and incessant need for the spotlight. While Dick’s antics are endearing, certainly, Mary’s drive for stability is an unmistakable dynamic in the pair’s relationship, especially while in the company of Dick’s family.

Mary goes camping with the group, and Sally reluctantly bonds with Mary when, applying ointment to a blister on Sally’s foot, Mary shows her a scar on her chin, the result of a field hockey scuffle with a girl when she was younger. Mary claims, “I dropped my stick and opened her up like a melon,” and an impressed Sally responds, “Albright, you’re pretty tough…for a prissy little bookworm.” As the Security Officer of the mission, Sally relates to Mary through the theme of violence. This pleasant moment appears as the result of Mary’s wisdom and life experiences, which are, in this case, unexpected since Mary is, after all, only a “bookworm” in the eyes of Dick’s family. Because Sally is young and beautiful, and she arrives to earth gendered as a male who is bitter about his anatomy and not romantically attracted to men initially, she enters the scene with male privilege and feels entitled to dismiss Mary as a mere distraction for Dick, who should be focusing on the mission; however, we come to find out that Mary is the mission. Because Sally stands out as an obvious feminist character–an Amazonian warrior–it’s relatively easy for viewers to pass over Mary as the middle-aged, level-headed academic in favor of the Solomons’ shenanigans. While Sally is conflicted about being “the woman” once they land, Mary has already spent many years as an earth woman, which means that her past indiscretions are unearthed.

Throughout the show’s run, Mary is the object of ridicule by Dick’s family for her age and her alleged lascivious past. Her mother even tells Dick that she had to crush birth control pills and sneak them in Mary’s cereal every morning because Mary was so promiscuous as a teenager. However, Mary quickly becomes the unofficial matriarch of the Solomon posse as Sally is much too militant and oblivious to the ways of earth to practice responsibility and forethought, aside from cooking and cleaning for her family–her “duties” as a woman. Sally can certainly act the part, but it’s always fleeting and disingenuous. Not quite as stubborn as Dick and not nearly as clueless as Harry, Sally’s downfall is her conflicted approach to womanhood, which actually serves to reframe the face of femininity and its gendered expectations on the show; Sally intermittently embraces and rejects the roles she’s expected to take on as “the woman” of the mission while Mary welcomes all facets of womanhood, including her sexual exploits. 
Although Mary is immediately drawn to Dick’s zany genius, she finds him an obnoxious office mate.

When Dick convinces Sally to lose her virginity in season two, he explains, “Dr. Albright dove right in, and it was her first time.” At this, a nearby Tommy bursts out in incredulous laughter; the implication is not only that Mary has had many suitors in her lifetime, but that she’s apparently been on earth a very long time. Later, Mary tells Dick, “When I was a young professor on the fast track, there were things that I did.” When Dick asks what those things were, Mary admits, “The Dean.” While Mary seems mildly regretful, she readily offers this information, and Dick refrains from judging her. Mary, then, serves to guide Sally’s path as a woman while on this planet. Mary assures the long-legged alien that being a virgin is a personal choice that is no one’s business but her own. Because sexuality and old age seem contradictory to the aliens, it seems comically unnatural to Dick’s family that Mary is or was ever the object of sexual arousal.

Because Mary is teased for her old age, especially since she’s no longer viewed as the sexual being she was once known as, it’s at the forefront of particular episodes. In season three, Dick hounds a photographer who once took “tasteful, artistic” nude photos of Mary when she was younger, and he comes to terms with them only after he begins shredding them. He discovers that the shots are beautiful and capture how beautiful Mary was, but he also realizes that she’s still sexually appealing because he loves her; he tells her that she has aged “like a fine wine.” What’s striking about this resolution is that Dick must see the photographs to behold and master this young image of his lover in order to feel secure in his position as her boyfriend. When Mary sees the photos, she comments that she was a “hottie.”

Ironically, Mary’s love for wine renders her immune to the poison placed in her drink by alien-hunters.
While Mary’s love for indulging in all of life’s pleasures is a recurring source of amusement on the show, Mary never denies that she enjoys sex and booze. She even gets drunk with Dick while playing a board game and admits to sleeping with Dick’s nemesis, Dr. Strudwick, a conversation the anthropology professor can’t even recall the following morning. Despite her earth antics, mild by comparison, Mary is the unequivocal voice of reason in a show that features the traditional formula of three kooky men and the woman who spends her time proving that she’s as worthy as they are, despite her status as an empowered woman. Mary is our surrogate in an environment that has little to no handling on the Solomons. We then need Mary in order to navigate our way through the misinformed and sometimes deranged misadventures of the crew.
Mary is the only earthling who finds out that the Solomons are aliens, and Dick even points out their home planet for her.

When the teenage Tommy decides that he’s fed up with high school girls, he begins to pursue Mary, and even requests that she call him the more sophisticated “Tom.” Tommy spends time with Mary because he values her knowledge and wisdom as an older woman, but he eventually caves to Dick’s demands that he back off the woman Dick is “not in love with.” In this case, we see a reversal and a challenging of what we know to be the standard fantasy of most men: to be with young girls. However, Tommy is the crew’s Information Officer, and he seeks earth women who can offer just that: knowledge and maturity. Tommy is a feminist character in his conscious decision to reject vacant, naive beauty in favor of substance. Because Tommy is indeed the oldest alien, he recognizes the value in dating Mary, even if she doesn’t realize the two are dating. In this way, Mary is prized as an older woman rather than demeaned as one.
Tommy and Dick stand off outside Mary’s front door.  Tommy says, “For the first time on this planet, I’ve met a woman who appreciates me for what I think.”

Without the balanced mix of Mary’s centered cool and her willingness to participate in the farcical plots of 3rd Rock, we have no anchor securing our spot somewhere between the logical and the absurd. Mary acts as a catalyst for progress and learning within the aliens’ lives, particularly that of Dick, who is irrevocably enlightened by knowing her. It’s because of Mary’s endless array of neuroses–abandonment issues, childhood obesity, dysfunctional family relationships–and codependent relationship with Dick that we come to adore the aliens and also recognize that we may be the aliens instead. Jane Curtin also refuses to be overshadowed by the eccentric comedic presence of John Lithgow, which is no small feat. 
When their mission is canceled, Dick tells Mary that she’ll remember him as “a feeling.”

Although Dick is an alien, and therefore a genius and a master of physics, Mary gives Dick a lesson in feelings during the group’s mission, a subject that was thoroughly foreign to him. The High Commander’s decision to extend the mission is a direct result of Mary’s ability to incite human emotion in an otherwise clinical, dismissive Dick–to teach him how to be human. In other words, we can thank Mary Albright for six seasons of intergalactic comedy gold from writers Bonnie and Terry Turner. Shortly after arriving, Dick tells Mary, “I want very much to feel, and I want even more to be felt, and I mean that from the heart of my bottom.”

Jenny Lapekas has a Master of Arts degree in English, and she teaches Composition at Alvernia University in Pennsylvania. Her areas of scholarship include women’s literature, menstrual literacy, and rape-revenge cinema.