MTV's hit show, The Osbournes, recently completed its first season, and I'm left wondering why it's been such a success. Since 9/11, the conventional wisdom was that television programming needed to become more patriotic. With Americans rallying around the flag, the pundits proclaimed, Hollywood had to stop running down the country and offer more positive images of the American way of life.
Then along came The Osbournes, a true pop cult phenomenon. America's new TV hero is a Brit from Birmingham, former lead singer of the heavy metal group Black Sabbath, with a dysfunctional family that makes the Simpsons look like the Cleavers. Although I wouldn't question Ozzy's patriotism, he was once caught urinating on the Alamo. And yet for the moment he's got the most talked about show on television. Go figure.
There's really no way to explain the TV taste of Americans, and when you get right down to it, the viewing public likes a show because its characters are likable. For all their foul language and vulgar behavior, Ozzy and his clan are just plain likable. In fact, they fit the tried-and-true formula for a television family, epitomized most recently by Fox's Malcolm in the Middle. There is the weak but lovable father (Ozzy), the strong-willed but caring mother (Sharon), and the obnoxious but witty children (Jack and Kelly). If you take away the curse words (and MTV tries mightily), the Osbournes are like any other TV family, regularly tearing apart and knitting back together in convenient chunks of 30 minutes at a time.
Perhaps, then, The Osbournes does have something positive to offer after all. Like many TV shows that have been criticized for undermining family values, The Osbournes in its own way actually upholds them. With an added twist: the Osbourne family is for real. What seems to have struck a chord in the viewing audience is the feeling that for once on TV, we're seeing how people actually behave with each other at home. The Osbournes is thus a strange mixture: part sitcom, part reality show.
That's why it's fitting that MTV has scored its greatest ratings success ever with The Osbournes. For years MTV has stuck to a simple formula in many of its shows. Whether it's Real World, Road Rules, Becoming, or Making the Band, the channel has catered to its target teenage audience with fantasies of turning ordinary people into celebrities. Someone at MTV finally had the bright idea: "Let's take celebrities and turn them into ordinary people." Week after week we get to see that Ozzy may be rich and famous, but–no matter what Robin Leach may think–deep down, his lifestyle is not essentially different from ours. He and his family may be swimming in material possessions, but they still must face the same problems we all do in living together. Even in Beverly Hills, there are dogs to be cleaned up after, and in Ozzy's household, he's apparently the man for the job.
Paradoxically, The Osbournes thus feels real, while the various reality shows MTV has served up for years feel fake. Real World claims to be taking its casts right off the street, but for some reason they have all looked like fashion models and seem to be playing to the camera with the gleam of a movie deal in their eyes. But Ozzy has seen too much to be dazzled by a camera anymore; in fact by now he seems pretty much oblivious to everything around him. And the Osbournes don't seem to be made up in any normal sense of the term. Who would choose to look the way they do on camera, and, more importantly, who would choose to behave that way?
But MTV wasn't wasting its time all those years of doing shows like Real World and Road Rules. Their producers have learned how to take raw candid footage and shape it up through skillful editing. What The Osbournes does so cleverly is to mold the daily life of this real family into the standard plot lines of traditional sitcoms. Thus we end up with the best of both worlds. When viewed today, a 1950s-era sitcom inevitably seems old-fashioned and even sappy. With The Osbournes we can feel we're viewing something on the cutting edge, and yet still see the nuclear family as an institution that is not outdated.
Take the episode that aired April 23 titled "No Vagrancy." This half hour combined two of the most venerable Leave It to Beaver plots: 1) Beaver brings home a stray dog 2) Wally brings home a stray Eddie Haskell. In this case, Jack played the roles of both Wally and the Beav, and Eddie was replaced by an equally obnoxious pro skateboarder. But the real fun was watching Ozzy play Ward Cleaver. Here was the one-time scourge of the bat kingdom speaking up on behalf of our little animal friends as he lectured his son: "If you don't take the full responsibility for the dog, the dog has to go." Above all, we got to savor the irony when Ozzy–who is on record as having once tried to murder his wife–criticized his son's shooting off a beebee gun: "That's not acceptable behavior to me." This from a man who styles himself "the Prince of Bleeping Darkness."
The Osbournes serves up little object lessons like this weekly to the Boomer generation: "OK, you had your fun rebelling in the '60s; now you've become parents–you figure out how to raise your kids." We're all amused watching Ozzy berate his daughter for getting the tiniest of hearts tattooed on her hip, when he is manifestly covered with gruesome tattoos all over his body. He may look deranged, but Ozzy must somehow learn to play the role of the traditional father.
The Osbournes has already had that most traditional of sitcom episodes, its Christmas special, "A Very Ozzy Christmas." Diehard fans of Black Sabbath may take some comfort in the fact that it aired on April 30, which I'm guessing is Christmas in the Satanist calendar. The show reached all the way back to Dickens, as Ozzy momentarily became Tiny Tim and poignantly reminisced about the poverty of Christmas Past: "When I was a kid, I'd get one gift–I'd get a smelly old sock, with a few nuts in it, a couple of pennies, an apple and an orange, and that was it."
And here is the one unexpected element in the show's formula for success: sentimentality. As shows like The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle have proven, you can be as satirical as you want about the family on American TV as long as you remember to show that, when all the shouting is over, mom and dad and the kids really love each other. For all the foul language that gets bandied back and forth in the Osbourne household, we get to witness moments of genuine affection among the family members–and it seems to be genuine precisely because we've seen them at each other's throats as well.
All these factors go together to make The Osbournes stand out on television. I can't think of any show where it has been this difficult to tell reality and unreality apart–except maybe the nightly news. We look at a scene and wonder: Is it scripted or ad-libbed? With Ozzy and his show business family, we can't tell for sure. Just when they seem to be most themselves, they turn out to be acting out an old sitcom plot. We've come a long way from the days of the ultimate prototype of The Osbournes, when another musician and his real family entertained us weekly on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet back in the 1950s. In view of the mega-profanity of the Osbourne family, many would say that the route from the one show to the other has been all downhill.
But if, like me, you prefer to see TV mix its standard sitcom plots with a dose of reality, then there's a lot to be said for The Osbournes. The show is of course much cruder than the sitcoms of the past, but at the same time it is much more sophisticated, both in the way it parodies the earlier shows and the way it gives us deeper glimpses into the psychological reality of family life. For example, for all their fabled wealth, the Osbournes, like most real families, spend a lot of time talking about money. With all that we learned in Ozzie and Harriet about the Nelson family, we never found out how the original Ozzie made a living. But the Ozzy of today never pretends that he's not in it for the money. For me the most touching moment in the series came when Ozzy stared at the Gucci bags full of Christmas presents Sharon had bought in New York and wondered how he was going to pay the bills: "This looks very dangerous to me; it looks like I'm on tour for the next nine years."
Fortunately, The Osbournes has been renewed for the fall season, with the clan earning a reported $20 million for 10 episodes. It turns out that Ozzy can afford his TV family after all.