No rest for family values on Black Sabbath
Dad was snoring on the couch through most of his family’s antics on last week’s episode of ”The Osbournes.” But when he discovered that his wife planned to liven up his next concert by filling the stage with bubbles, Ozzy Osbourne, 53, snapped to attention.
”Bubbles?!” he hollered indignantly. ”Sharon, I’m the Prince of [bleep] Darkness!”
”The Osbournes” is a half-hour show on MTV that follows this once-satanic heavy metal star and his equally foulmouthed wife-manager and two teenagers through daily life in their Baroque-Gothic Beverly Hills mansion. (Crystal, chintz and souvenir death’s-heads.)
An odd amalgam of ”Ozzie and Harriet,” ”The Beverly Hillbillies” and ”This Is Spinal Tap,” the show is the biggest hit in MTV’s 24-year history, and its popularity is spreading. Last week the show, on Tuesday nights, drew six million viewers. HBO’s ”Sex and the City” gets about 6.4 million an episode; ”Six Feet Under,” also on HBO, gets about 5.4 million.
”The Osbournes” has introduced a new television genre: the docu-sitcom.
Television producers are already exploring knockoffs. The day after the premiere, said Scott Sassa, president of NBC’s West Coast division, ”I went into a development meeting and said, ‘Guys, what do we do here?’ ” Describing ”The Osbournes” as ”different in a significant and meaningful way,” Mr. Sassa said he instructed his staff to seek similarly different material for NBC.
Despite the tattoos and endless bleeping, the show stands out mostly because the British rockers are so subversively middle class. An MTV camera crew lived in their house for almost four months last fall and showcased Mr. Osbourne, the former lead singer of Black Sabbath, famous for biting off the heads of bats onstage, as a typical suburban dad. He cannot master the remote control, his unruly household or his wife’s menagerie of incontinent cats and dogs.
When his wife tells him that she has hired a pet therapist, Mr. Osbourne looks appalled. ”No, darling, you don’t need a therapist,” he moans. ”You need to get up at 7 a.m. and open the [bleep] door.” The camera cuts to the Beverly Hills pet therapist, blond and brisk, striding up the drive.
At times Mr. Osbourne’s slurred speech and trembling hands make him seem more like a dotty pensioner than a Prince of Darkness, but even heavy-metal purists do not seem to mind the de-demonization of their idol.
”It’s so hilarious to watch Ozzy take three minutes to put a liner in his trash can,” Brian Fair, 26, a member of a thrash metal group, ”Shadows Fall,” explained. ”I don’t think his fans have any illusions,” said Doc Coyle, lead guitarist of the metal band God Forbid. ”Everybody knows his brain is fried.”
In a sense, ”The Osbournes” completes an arc that began in 1973 when PBS broadcast ”An American Family,” a 12-hour documentary series on the Louds, an attractive, well-to-do-family in Santa Barbara, Calif., whose disintegration on camera became a national psychodrama.
More than a quarter-century later the Osbournes are documented over 12 episodes for laughs.
Scholars find even that significant. ”The show is funny, but it is also emblematic of this age of celebrity,” said Anna McCarthy, a professor of media studies at New York University.
”Before we turned ordinary, real people into protagonists,” she added. ”Now we take celebrities and turn them into ordinary characters for comic effect.”
MTV executives are confident that they have found the next big thing. ”I do think that the wall between the public and celebrities is going to crumble even further,” said Brian Graden, MTV’s president for programming. ”TV already demands as much access as possible, but we take it to a whole new level. Julia Roberts is going to have to take a film crew on her next vacation to be a viable cultural figure.”
The fourth episode, in which the Osbournes wage war on their Beverly Hills neighbors for playing their ”middle-aged music” too loud, beat out all competition — cable and network — for one of the age groups most coveted by advertisers, viewers 12 to 34. The Osbournes have appeared on ”Today” and the ”Tonight” show.
Critics who have mostly sneered at other MTV hits like ”Jackass,” praise ”The Osbournes.” In The New York Times, Caryn James wrote that the show ”plays like a hilarious real-life version of ‘The Addams Family,’ tongue in cheek and mischievously funny.”
The MTV generation sees the family as the new Simpsons.
”They genuinely seem to love each other, and they call each other the worst names in the world,” said Craig Marks, editor of Blender, a rock music magazine. ”Ozzy’s life is so fictional. It’s as if someone created this loony heavy metal star from England who settles in Beverly Hills. But it’s real life, so it can’t succumb to the icky conventions of sitcoms.”
”The Osbournes” derives from MTV’s ”Real World,” a reality show for young people. Mostly, it stems from the Osbournes’ star turn last year on ”Cribs,” a weekly MTV tour of rock stars’ homes.
At a dinner afterward at the Ivy restaurant in Santa Monica, Mrs. Osbourne and the children regaled the MTV team with family stories and invited the cameras back to record their move to a new house.
”We said: This is it, this is the show,” Lois Curren, a producer of the show, recalled.
Mrs. Osbourne, who is also preparing her husband’s seventh annual summer tour, Ozzfest 2002, wields considerable control. The family members were allowed to screen rough cuts and remove anything they found embarrassing. ”She told us we could film her in her pajamas without makeup,” Ms. Curren said.
Mrs. Osbourne, who watched the show on television for the first time last week, said she did not wince.
”I got past being embarrassed after the first two months of filming,” she said in a telephone interview in which she did not utter the word [bleep] even once.
Both Jack, 16, who sports heavy black-rim glasses and often a camouflage helmet, and Kelly, 17, whose hair is dyed pink, are un-self-conscious. They argue, scuffle, talk back to the nanny. (Jack says, ”[bleep] off and get a real job,” when she tries to coax him to clean his room.) Kelly discusses the hygienic consequences of wearing thong underwear with her mum. She complains angrily to her dad when mum makes a gynecologist appointment for her.
And Mr. Osbourne plays Dad to the hilt. As the children prepare to go clubbing, he tells them to be home by 2:30 a.m. ”Don’t drink, don’t do drugs and if you have sex, wear a condom.”
Their eldest daughter, Aimée, 18, who lives on her own, declined to participate.
”Aimée is normal, like the daughter in ‘Absolutely Fabulous,’ ” Mrs. Osbourne sighed, referring to the British sitcom that pits two aging party girls against a disapproving bluestocking daughter. ”She is so embarrassed by us.”
The success of the show has not translated into a spike in sales for Mr. Osbourne’s latest album. ”We can’t give it away,” Mrs. Osbourne said.
Referring to music available on the Internet, she added, ”Why buy it when you can get it for free?” Mostly the show has given Mr. Osbourne a new and incongruous second career as a television star.
Many Americans know Mr. Osbourne, a working-class lad from Birmingham, England, as a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll bane of Tipper Gore, who campaigned against explicit lyrics. He was banned from San Antonio in 1981 for urinating on the Alamo.
In 1986 the parents of a boy who killed himself while listening to his song ”Suicide Solution,” held him responsible in a suit that went to Los Angeles Superior Court (which threw out the case on the grounds of First Amendment rights).
But music fans discovered his addled, avuncular side long ago.
The band Led Zeppelin was the father of heavy metal, Mr. Marks explained. ”Ozzy is more like the loony uncle.” Autor: Alessandra Stanley