‘3rd Rock From the Sun’: The Episode That Cost Over $10 Million

When you think about expensive entertainment endeavors, you probably conjure up images of superhero flicks like Avengers: Age of Ultron or sprawling fantasy worlds like the Harry Potter franchise. Maybe you think of TV shows that have a reputation of spending big on huge ensembles casts filled with A-list stars, pricey set builds in exotic locations or special effects that blow the audience’s mind. 

What you probably don’t think about is 3rd Rock from the Sun, a quirky NBC sitcom that ran in the late 1990s. One episode of the show, however, had a particularly impressive price tag. 

‘3rd Rock from the Sun’ was an NBC sitcom

Pictured: (l-r) Jane Curtin as Dr. Mary Albright, French Stewart as Harry Solomon, Kristen Johnston as Sally Solomon, John Lithgow as Dr. Dick Solomon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tommy Solomon
L to R: Jane Curtin as Dr. Mary Albright, French Stewart as Harry Solomon, Kristen Johnston as Sally Solomon, John Lithgow as Dr. Dick Solomon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tommy Solomon | Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

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3rd Rock from the Sun premiered in 1996 on NBC. The series starred John Lithgow as college professor Dr. Dick Solomon, and Kristen Johnson played his sister, Sally. French Stewart played their brother Harry, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt played Tommy, Dr. Solomon’s son.

The concept of the show was that no one was who they claimed to be. The entire family, in fact, wasn’t really a family at all but the top officials of an alien planet.

They had taken on human form as a ruse to help further their plot to learn more about Earth, its inhabitants, and their customs. The act of taking on human form has left them with the messy navigation of human biological needs as well as newfound emotional responses. Add to this the fact that everything on Earth — from the mundane to the profound — is new and interesting to them, and you’ve got the recipe for a hilarious family sitcom

The series ran for six seasons before wrapping up in 2001. 

Early reviews for ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’ were mixed

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3rd Rock from the Sun may have stumbled upon a hilarious concept, but the execution of it left some fans skeptical. As Mental Floss reports, the initial pilot was actually created for ABC, not NBC.

ABC turned the show down, and NBC wasn’t sure about it, either. They even had the crew re-shoot the pilot for their network before finally accepting it. 

At that point, the show had cleared the executive hurdles but still needed to prove itself to audiences. Early reviews were a mixed bag. Critics praised the “talented cast and clever writing,” but they often couldn’t get past the sophomoric jokes and efforts to squeeze in sex puns whenever possible.

In the end, the show did mostly find its footing, and today it’s something of a cult classic in TV sitcom history. 

One episode of ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’ cost $10 million

There’s no doubt the show was quirky, and one need look no further than the two-part finale for Season 2 to see evidence of its unusual approach. The episode was broadcast in 3-D, which — long before in-home 3D was a common occurrence — made it a challenge for viewers. They’d need access to 3D glasses in order to enjoy the show as it was intended to be viewed. 

The episode itself only cost around $1.5 million to make, as Entertainment Weekly reported at the time. This was already beyond its typical budget of under $1 million, but the promotional materials in order to get those 3D glasses into the hands of fans were much, much pricier.

The network partnered with Barq’s and Little Ceasar’s Pizza to help distribute the eyewear, and that promotional campaign cost a whopping $10 million! 

The money may well have been worth it as it helped NBC maintain relevance as ABC dove headfirst into a 3D campaign of their own. ABC’s programming VP at the time explained that they had the advantage because their 3D plan spanned more shows: “Even if NBC’s had been on first, we weren’t really worried.”

Those who didn’t get their hands on the glasses, however, were less jarred by 3rd Rock‘s version. It was filmed with moving cameras, so even those who watched it without the 3D effects would have seen a normal show. The ABC viewers who didn’t have a pair were subjected to blurry lines.