• U.S.

Television: Ozzy Knows Best

7 minute read
James Poniewozik

The neighbors are complaining about loud music in the middle of the night. This is exactly what you would expect on a reality show about the Beverly Hills, Calif., home life of British metal god Ozzy Osbourne, wife Sharon and teenage kids Kelly and Jack–except that the noisy ones are in the manse next door, blaring The Girl from Ipanema, and the Osbournes don’t like it one bit. But this is not the best part of the episode. The family retaliates by blasting death metal on the stereo (while Ozzy snores away, his slumber safeguarded by decades of standing in front of deafening amp stacks) and throwing a ham over the hedges. But this is not the best part of the episode either. No, the best part is when a bleary-eyed Sharon and Jack reminisce about their favorite old neighbor: Pat Boone. “He was just the best person ever to live next door to,” Sharon says wistfully. “He was such a lovely man.”

The Osbournes, MTV’s hit “reality sitcom,” would be good enough if it only gave you what you would expect–flying meat, crucifixes on the doors and enough bleeped-out cursing to give Pat Robertson the vapors. And it does. What makes it brilliant is its surprising mundanity, the Pat Boone-y-ness of it all: Ozzy puzzling over the satellite-TV remote, flipping out over Kelly’s new tattoo (while sporting a few acres of skin art himself) and struggling to fit liners in the trash bin.

Rock-‘n’-roll fantasy meets take-out-the-trash reality: this is why The Osbournes (Tuesdays, 10:30 p.m. E.T.) is the most successful new series in MTV history. Its ratings are up 57% since its premiere; 5 million people tuned in to last Tuesday’s broadcast alone: Total Request Live-watching teens captivated by the dotty uncle they recognize from his annual Ozzfest tour, old-timer Black Sabbath fans tickled to find the band’s singer still breathing. More important, it has done the near impossible: got viewers excited, in a Didja-see-it-last-night? way, about a show that for all practical purposes belongs to TV’s most moribund genre, the sitcom.

Ask TV executives–even MTV’s–about The Osbournes, and they will tell you the channel got lucky in a way you can’t duplicate. (MTV will have to drop the show after one season unless the family consents to another; the network may stretch the 10 planned episodes to 13.) This is true in the literal sense: when Ozzy was created, he bit the head off the mold. NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker says, “I don’t think you can just do The Lees now, as in Tommy.”

But in a broader sense, what MTV has done right is a case study in what TV often does wrong. The Osbournes is the oldest thing on TV since the test pattern: a nuclear family that eats meals together, shares its problems (even if every third word is bleeped) and survives wacky scenarios. The family dogs are peeing on the carpets, so they call in a pet therapist! Jack goes to a hippie sleep-away camp and hates it! (Kelly: “They make you feed a tree before you feed yourself.” Ozzy: “How the f___ do you feed a tree? Put out a ham sandwich?”) But the show violates the conventions that make so many sitcoms so, well, conventional. The pace is leisurely, not forced, and the humor derives less from “jokes” than from characters who do something more envelope pushing than cursing: surprise you.

Take the kids. (Or take two of them; the eldest daughter Aimee moved out of the house for the four-months-plus taping.) In sitcomland, Kelly would be a boy-crazy princess; Jack, an Alex P. Keaton rebel-in-reverse. In reality, they’re smart, self-deprecating teens living an abnormal childhood normally; they’re rich, their dad is the Prince of Darkness, and they’re fine with it, thanks. Kelly talks more frankly about matters gynecological than any other teen on TV, in a jocular, locker-room way, but hardly mentions boys. Jack is starting his own record label. How square can you get?

Take away the Gulfstream jets, and it’s something you see in real life but rarely on TV: a baby boomer’s family that is neither traditional nor Dharma & Greg wacky. The unspoken context of The Osbournes’ humor is that Ozzy’s problems were not always of the how-do-you-work-the-remote variety; he has talked voluminously about his substance-abusing past. Now he tells his kids to say no to drugs and use a condom if they have sex. Whether that is hypocrisy or wisdom, even boomers whose wild life was limited to coughing through half a doobie in a parking lot can relate to Ozzy’s situation in a way that re-examines that most political phrase, “family values.” “It’s not about how stiff or strict you present yourself,” says MTV Entertainment president Brian Graden. “It’s about how honest and loving you are.”

The Osbournes is also a symptom of the evolution of celebrity. Save for an Olympian few, the Julias and Denzels, stars need to allow ever greater access, to dance for us a little, to stay in our good graces. (Make no mistake, The Osbournes is expert p.r.: Sharon, who is Ozzy’s manager, allowed MTV’s cameras back after the family did the network’s house-tour show Cribs.) From the surprise Fox hit Celebrity Boxing to the star editions of NBC’s entrails buffet Fear Factor, reality TV has become a kind of on-air pension plan for slightly used celebrities. And if any network knows how simultaneously to debase and elevate celebs, it’s MTV, the home of Celebrity Deathmatch. The Osbournes says Ozzy is just like you because he has to take out the garbage and deal with dog pee; it says he is not like you because when he does this, it’s funny (and it’s on TV).

Yet Ozzy, with his bangers-and-mash accent, is such a bloke that you even empathize when he gripes about riding in a stretch limo (“f___ing pimpmobile!”). Like The Beverly Hillbillies, The Osbournes is about working-class people who happen to be rich. During the row with the neighbors, the “rich boys” next door make fun of the family’s Martha-meets-Marilyn Manson decor. “[Ozzy] worked for those f___ing doors with the crosses on them,” Kelly fumes. “So f___ them!” Leave it to the English to remind America that class exists. The Osbournes also violates some taboos by laughing about things sitcoms aren’t supposed to. On the show–taped last fall, at the height of America’s post-9/11 anxiety–Ozzy yells at a rascally pet, “He’s a terrorist! He’s f___ing part of bin Laden’s gang!” Earlier this year, Drew Carey complained that ABC forced him to tone down an episode that made fun of airport-security workers.

The Osbournes, of course, is a hit on cable, with its more relaxed standards and smaller audiences. Still, MTV has reshaped mainstream TV before. The Real World wouldn’t have made it on CBS, but it spawned Survivor. NBC may not have aired Jackass, but it eventually gave us Fear Factor. “I’m sure the networks will find a lame, copycat way to do it wrong,” says producer Judd Apatow (Undeclared). “Most television is constructed by committee. And a show like this doesn’t have a committee, so it can’t be watered down.” The networks are already considering new twists on reality series. ABC is positioning The Hamptons, a two-part documentary by Barbara Kopple about the Long Island resort towns, to air in June, as “the first reality mini-series.” Whether The Osbournes affects how sitcoms tell funny stories is another matter. Perhaps you can’t make up something that original. But it would be nice to see somebody try.

–With reporting by Leslie Berestein/Los Angeles and Benjamin Nugent/New York

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com