An Anthropologist on Mars

I’m not a huge fan of human interaction. This may be why I’ve never done any fieldwork in anthropology, choosing instead to study my own culture from the comfy side of the TV screen. Much can be discerned about our civilization from what networks put on the air and what we choose to watch. Reality shows are nothing more than televised experiments on temperaments and thresholds. And scripted shows alternately dissect, idealize, and satirize our families and workplaces. Both inadvertently create a record of our crazy, mixed-up mindset. The result is a record of humans and their institutions as we see them.

Bias is inherent when studying one’s own species, let alone when studying one’s own culture. I’ve always envied the perspective afforded to Temple Grandin, a university professor with autism. She’s described by neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks as “an anthropologist on mars.” Because her autism renders so many facets of human interaction bizarre, she has a rare objectivity similar to that of the proverbial “other”. Television has long recognized that the viewpoint of “the other” is comedy gold. Hence the boatload of sitcoms that involve aliens, robots, and talking animals. By removing the human as central commentator, we get the chance to examine our own species through the eyes of another. Of course television shows, at least as far as I know, are exclusively authored by these before-mentioned humans and tend to lean on over-simplifications, but let us suspend that reality for a moment and see just what we’ve learned about ourselves through the eyes of these mysterious spectators.

My husband and I have long quipped that our ideal offspring would be Vicki, the fantastic made of plastic girl on Small Wonder. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall the day a show about a robotics engineer trying to pass off what is essentially a life-sized Robosapien toy as his flesh and blood daughter was pitched to the networks. It’s ridiculous, but I can’t help but get wrapped up in the fantasy of a daughter that can act as a body guard with her super-human strength, charge a cell phone in her handy armpit AC outlet, and can be easily kept in a closet. As interesting as I find the concept of a totally blank slate, Vicki failed to illuminate humanity’s eccentricities — other than proving our proclivity for idiomatic speech that she inevitably took far too literarily.

ALF, the ‘alien life form’ taking refuge from government scientists inside the Tanner household, was the true cultural critic to emerge from the ’80s sitcom. Granted, his most scathing reviews were saved for household pets since, on his home planet, cats are considered little more than delicious. At the funeral for the Tanner’s long-hunted feline, ALF comments that it’s like having a funeral for a hamburger and tries to convince them that Lucky’s nightly prayer was, “And if I die before I wake, chicken-fry me like a steak.” Despite the casually indirect commentary provided by the demise of ALF’s home planet in a nuclear holocaust, right at a time when the Cold War was still snacking on the American consciousness, ALF comes from a background more similar to ours than most extant non-Western cultures. He’s not inspecting us so much as reflecting us.

Deep rumination on the human condition is neither expected nor particularly welcomed from TV comedy, but 3rd Rock from the Sun takes “the others” view and twists it into a crazy critique on gender and interpersonal roles. A group of extraterrestrials from an advanced — and asexual — civilization assign themselves the form of an American family and starts collecting data for their leader: The Big Giant Head. Dick, the high commander, takes the role of providing patriarch and becomes a physics professor sharing an office with Mary, a saucy anthropologist. The security officer becomes Dick’s sister, Sally, and the information officer embodies Dick’s teenage son, Tommy. Dick’s brother, Harry’s only function appears to be acting as an antenna for the Big Giant Head’s transmissions and infusing the show’s humor with vapid silliness.

As humans, they have no powers other than allegedly superior intelligence and utter truthfulness. They can’t even stop time like half-alien Evie on Out of this World, and I’m pretty sure Vicki could kick their asses. The aliens of 3rd Rock gather the majority of their information from their precious television, but struggle to parlay the lessons without the filter of proper enculturation. Sally quickly learns of the benefits offered to the attractive. Her breasts, she observes, “have greater power when they collide,” and consequently bolsters her status with crass come-ons served from the titty platter assembled on her neck. Tommy’s alternate personas as the senior member of the mission and placement into the endocrine nightmare of adolescence chafe as he navigates high school and dating. Dick cultivates the self-image of a powerful figurehead while generally behaving like a dolt.

With trite gender epithets flying around like they’re being beaten out of a piñata , 3rd Rock is often just another banal sitcom, but at certain moments it functions as a meta-critique on the bizarre sway that television has over society. ALF and Vicki entered Western culture as “the other”, and their shows always treated them as such. They were the odd ones out in scripts that stuttered on silly ticks, like idioms and the desirability of cat meat. They made all the actions of the surrounding humans seem normal by comparison. 3rd Rock does just the opposite. When the characters subscribe to the roles and customs prescribed by television they splay the absurdities of our pop culture out like the entrails of an alien-probed cow. In one episode, Sally walks up to a man in a bar and shouts, “Your sexual organs are in total diametric opposition to mine!” unselfconsciously deconstructing all our mating rituals in the process.

As someone who’s personal development gestated in the womb of television, I can relate to the travails of 3rd Rock‘s aliens. Eventually I collided with the expectations of adulthood, wiped the embryonic fluid out of my eyes, and began experiencing the world as an interactive member of society. It sucked to learn that you can’t say whatever you want as long as you’re funny, and that the politics of masculinity and femininity are more complicated than the exchange of cleavage for favors. It turns out that TV is a fairly inaccurate place to learn about a culture . . . especially your own. I pity the extraterrestrial worlds out there trying to fathom the multitudes of our society from those long aired television signals. I can only hope that once episodes of 3rd Rock reach their receivers, they can fully appreciate the faults of their effort.