Forget JTT, This Is The Only '90s Heartthrob I Care About

Photo: Moviestore/REX Shutterstock.
In 1996, there was only one three-named teen heartthrob my friends cared about: JTT. Jonathan Taylor Thomas starred on the ABC sitcom Home Improvement. By that point, the show — which premiered in 1991 — was already in its decline. I don’t even think my friends ever watched it, anyway. They probably learned about the blond-haired, blue-eyed actor from the likes of Tiger Beat and Teen. No matter what the source material, though, JTT was the agreed upon tween lust object of our friend group.

Not for me.

There was only one three-named dreamboat I cared about in 1996: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Unfortunately, no one seemed to share my obsession. Oh sure, people today understand. JGL is currently a world-famous actor, producer, writer, and creator. He’s starred in great movies like Inception, (500) Days of Summer, Mysterious Skin, and Looper. He married someone out of the Hollywood eye, and they welcomed a son this past summer. He seems like an all-around mensch, right?

This isn’t a story about the Joseph Gordon-Levitt we all know and love today, though. It’s the story of a lesser-known JGL from decades past. Sit back, why don’t you, so I can talk to you about aliens. Yes, they’re extremely relevant to this story.

Twenty years ago, on January 9, 1996, an extremely broad, silly sitcom called 3rd Rock From the Sun premiered on NBC. Its premise is fairly stupid and very simple. Four aliens arrive on Earth, which they consider to be inhabited by the dumbest life forms in the galaxy, to study said idiots. To excel at this, they pretend to be a human family named the Solomons.

Dick Solomon (John Lithgow) is the high commander of the mission, so he becomes the blowhard patriarch of the family. Yes, Dick jokes abound. Sally (Kristen Johnston) is the security officer and she pretends to be Dick’s sister. Harry (French Stewart) actually just came along for the ride, so they implanted a chip in his head that helps them communicate with their home planet. He pretends to be Dick and Sally’s brother. He squints all the time and is generally there for comic relief.

Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the mission’s information officer, and while he’s actually the oldest of the four on their home planet, for some reason, he gets stuck in the body of a teenage boy on Earth. This disappoints him immensely, because he’s forced to pretend to be Dick’s son and deal with annoyances including puberty and other teenagers.

Even with my 1996 kid sensibilities, I found the show to be way too over-the-top in its attempts at raunchy humor and punchlines. I still tuned in every week, though, because I just loved Tommy Solomon. His character is from another planet, but I found him to be extremely relatable. Being a teenager often makes you feel like you’re having alien experiences, so why not parody this with a foreign being who finds American pubescence asinine?

Since Tommy is an old soul, he isn’t interested in the same things his peers are. This frustrates him, but not enough to bother trying to fit in. He dates another nonconformist, a feminist named August (Shay Astar). Everyone else his age has short hair; he wears his long. It’s all a sign of the Solomons being a little behind the times and not up to speed on current Earthling trends, but Tommy doesn’t immediately rush to get a haircut when he realizes he’s the only guy at school with shoulder-length hair.

We’re currently in a moment of “you do you” and “express yourself” personal-style acceptance, so maybe it doesn’t faze you at all to learn that Tommy remains faithful to his longer hair for the majority of the series (Gordon-Levitt had to get producers’ approval to cut it midway through season 3). Nevertheless, trust me when I tell you that in the '90s, it was much harder to dare to be different at public school.

For all of the above reasons, I was very much into Tommy’s continued nonconformity. To me, it showed bravery and a willingness to go against the grain. We didn’t have too many people like that at my own school, so I guess I turned to television to find one. I will also admit that his expressive brown eyes and cute smile fostered my crush.

When JGL left the show in season 6 to attend Columbia University, I was on board with his decision. Not that he was consulting me, what with never having met me or anything, but just know that I was very supportive of his choice to take a step back from acting to get an education. They explain his absence in the show the same way: Tommy goes to college. For once, a TV show follows the same milestones as real life and lets a character go when it feels natural.

3rd Rock From the Sun
didn’t continue on for much longer after Tommy’s departure. There were probably other extenuating circumstances, but I like to think it’s because that old alien trapped in JGL’s youthful body was no longer around. I mean, that’s why I didn’t care to tune in anymore. The series went off the air in 2001, but all six seasons can now be viewed on Netflix. Are there better things to watch? Sure. Will there ever be another Tommy Solomon, though? No effing way.

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