Friday, January 9, 2009

TV-holics prepare for bender

My wife and I are the worst kinds of insufferable snobs who are always telling people at parties we never watch much TV. For some reason, this makes us feel culturally superior or at least equal to the people who lie back they never do either.

It’s all hooey, of course. We watch all the time. Not only do we watch, but we take it all so seriously that we’ve gotten into vicious public shouting spats in highbrow restaurants about whether Jack Bauer’s brutal tactics will unnecessarily cost fictional lives. She screams that national security gives Jack moral sanction to conduct interrogations that involve lopping off the fingers of enemy combatants and I scream that she doesn’t know Jack about Jack.

The fights will start all over again Sunday with the long-awaited return of Bauer and “24.” That will kick off a run of must-see viewing for us that will likely lead to reduced productivity, sleepless nights and months of neglect for the poor kiddos who’ll exist solely on the dubious sustenance of Pop Tarts, Cheetos and Fresca.

Within the next month or so, our nights will be filled with “American Idol,” “Lost,” “24,” and “Survivor.” Sure, they all fall in the lowbrow category, but they all look like “Masterpiece Theater” compared to my very favorite show of all time.

That would be the magnificent “3rd Rock from the Sun.”

You can stuff M*A*S*H in Major Frank Burns’s rat-infested foot locker. Take the gang from Seinfeld and have them spend a Twilight-Zone sort of eternity looking for lost cars in endless parking garages.

Sure, those are great shows, but there’s never been a funnier, more laugh-out-loud hilarious show than “3rd Rock,” which is currently making the evening rounds on TV Land starting at 11 p.m. EST.

The absurd premise is based on four aliens -- Tom, Dick, Harry and Sally Solomon -- who take human form and come to earth to study our habits. They end up in Rutherford, Ohio, where Dr. Dick Solomon, played by John Lithgow, teaches incomprehensible physics to dimbulb students and craves earthly delights with his office mate, Dr. Mary Albright, played by the wonderful Jane Curtin.

The cast is uniformly excellent, but the peerless Lithgow steals the show.

The so-called great actors of the day leave me utterly cold. To me, acting normal isn’t acting. I sit mere barstools away from six guys who on any given day can out-surly the acclaimed Sean Penn. These guys act like they hate their jobs, their ex-wives, the man we elected president and anyone who cheers for the Chargers to beat the Steelers on Sunday (I’m right there with them on that last one).

If they ever give an Oscar for chronic misery, I have a barful of nominees ready for the red carpet, a unwelcome stroll they’ll reflexively say they hate.

But my pulse races anytime I see truly great overacting. And there’s never been more over-the-top overacting than that which is done by the incomparable Lithgow, in my opinion the greatest overactor ever.

The episode where Dick Solomon takes over as the relentlessly pompous director of the high school version of Romeo & Juliet should be required viewing in acting schools that have been churning out generation after generation of robotic actors who’ve been brainwashed into thinking guys like Moe, Larry and Curly are lowbrow.

Watch for it. That particular episode is called “Romeo, Juliet & A Dick.”

That’s another thing. What must have been intended to be a great subversive inside joke is now splashed all over the screen anytime a viewer checks out the program guide. Nearly every episode includes the name Dick in the title.

Some examples: “Father Knows Dick;” “Will Work For Dick;” “Eleven Angry Men and a Dick;” “I Brake For Dick;” “I Enjoy Being a Dick;” “Angry Dick,” and the monumentally relevant, “These Dicks They Are A Changin’.”

For those of you raised by sensitive sorts in cloistered environments, each of these titles is intentionally freighted with a double meaning. And to lowbrows like me, each is uproariously funny.

I doubt the brilliant producers of the show ever imagined the viewers would see the actual titles flashed up on the screen of a station watched by children, but youthful innocence has a short shelf life these days.

So, no, we don’t watch much TV. Just the shows mentioned above supplemented with near-nightly viewings of “3rd Rock.” I purchased the entire six-season run (1996-02) when it came out on DVD three years ago. It is one of my most cherished possessions.

Val loves it, too, but she takes exception when I say the “Romeo, Juliet & A Dick” episode is the best. She prefers “Dick ‘The Mouth’ Solomon” where Tommy and Sally fall under the sway of a guido they mistakenly believe to be a vicious mob hitman. She insists it’s the funniest “3rd Rock” ever.

On this point, we disagree.

You should see the gape-jawed stares we get in highbrow restaurants when I scream at her that she doesn’t know Jack about Dick.

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