By Paul A. Cantor
MTV's hit show, The Osbournes, recently completed its first season as a huge success, and I'm left wondering why.
After 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.
The bottom line is the viewing public likes a show because its characters are likable despite all their foul language and vulgar behavior. In fact, they fit the tried-and-true formula for a television family, epitomized most recently by Fox's Malcolm in the Middle. There’s 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, the Osbournes are like any other TV family, regularly coming apart and knitting back together in convenient 30-minute chunks.
Like many TV shows criticized for undermining family values, The Osbournes in its own way upholds them, but 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. Someone there 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 deep down, his lifestyle is not essentially different from ours. He and his family may be swimming in material possessions, but they still face the same problems we do. 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.
What The Osbournes does so cleverly is to mold the daily life of a 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, and 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, lecturing 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 BB gun: "That's not acceptable behavior to me." This from a man who styles himself "the Prince of Bleeping Darkness."
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 permanent body art. 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 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 also seen them at each other's throats.
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.
Paul Cantor is the UVA prof who wrote Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization. Having been interviewed by Jayson Whitehead in the May 2 edition of the Hook, Cantor recently interviewed Gilligan himself, Bob Denver, for a radio program. "Short of a date with Mary Anne," he says, "that's about as good as it gets." This essay originally ran in Reason.