Ozzy and Ozzie: TV family guys, one tattooed

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ozzy Osbourne is not your father's Ozzie, that 1950s paragon of TV virtue.

Fifty years ago, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" became an early model of the ubiquitous sitcoms to come. Sweater-wearing former bandleader Ozzie; his equally idealized wife, Harriet; and his handsome sons, David and Ricky, played themselves in scripted stories in which they encountered a few mild stumbles of family life.

Foul-mouthed and cranky, heavy-metal rocker Ozzy Osbourne is far from Ozzie Nelson. And his family Â- wife Sharon and teenagers Kelly and Jack Â- don't look or sound like the Nelsons. But their new TV show, "The Osbournes," has landed the family on the cover of Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, and become the biggest hit in MTV's history.

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"This has managed to become the first post-post-modern or post-post-ironic TV program," says media observer Robert Thompson.

The sitcom era began with shows such as "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" (1952-1966), depicting what Mr. Thompson calls a utopian, picture-perfect family that never really existed. In the 1990s came an ironic response, in shows such as "The Simpsons" and "Roseanne," which turned that model on its ear.

By the turn of the millennium, "There was nowhere left to go; [viewers] were bored," says Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse (N.Y.) University.

In this show, Ozzy isn't exactly the heavy-metal rocker his fans have known for more than 20 years, either. The former front man for Black Sabbath, best known for biting the head off a bat, is seen in this unscripted reality show/sitcom doing mundane things like struggling with a TV remote control and fighting a losing war against family pets who soil the carpet.

Osbourne, a man whose career is devoted to pushing the envelope, "did the most outrageously unpredictable thing of finding himself inside the most predictable unit in our nation, the family sitcom," Thompson says.

At first blush, it may seem that "The Osbournes" glorifies a man whose music has been accused of encouraging teens to kill themselves. But if anything, the fumbling, sometimes incoherent Osbourne is a poster boy for "Don't do what I did, honey." One critic even suggested using subtitles when the ravaged singer speaks.

"To some extent, ["The Osbournes"] is pure calculated opportunism," Thompson says. "This is exactly where we would expect him to end up, because this is the apotheosis of the Ozzy persona. While at first you think, this is so weird, then you suddenly realize we'd gotten tired of Ozzy doing outrageous things."

In 1952, "Ozzie and Harriet" blurred the line between fiction and reality, says Brian Graden, head of programming at MTV. In 2002, so does the equally real-life Ozzy Â- though he's tattooed from head to toe, wears eyeliner and magenta streaks in his hair, bites his pets, and is known as the Prince of Darkness.

Yet, Mr. Graden adds, there is a similarity between the two families. "Still, there's [that same] undercurrent of love and affection among the family members."

The appeal is simple, says Osbourne's manager and wife of 20 years, Sharon. "Our marriage has had its ups and downs. But, you know, we love each other. We have a great family that bonds us together."

Osbourne himself says audiences love the idea that celebrities have to take out the trash and deal with troublesome teens, just like everyone else. In fact, say some observers, it's so Ozzy to rebel by doing the most unexpected thing possible Â- being normal.

"Every [other star] I've seen do a thing about themselves, it's always like, 'Julian, fetch me my drink,' " Osbourne says. "You know, this rock star fantasy world. We are real people.... What you see on that program is what went down."

None of the show was scripted or reshot, he adds.

"That's reality. I didn't want to tidy up the stuff for the show. People say to me, 'Are you sure you want people to see this?' Well, that's the way we are."

The idea for the series came from the family's participation in another MTV show, "Cribs," which provides tours of stars' homes. The series began as an extension of the house tour, but takes it a step further. "I just thought America needed to see what a normal family is really like," Sharon Osbourne says.

Some viewers may not consider a family normal whose moving boxes are labeled "devil heads" and "dead things," or who routinely swears at one another without batting an eye. But Ozzy says the show is designed to confront notions of normalcy.

"I've been around this country and England and around the world. Family values, functional family: What is a functional family?" he says. "I know I'm dysfunctional by a long shot, but what guidelines do we have to go by? 'The Waltons?' What I'm trying to say is, what is the family we should all take our inspiration from?The show, he says, depicts "the good, the bad and the ugly."

"The Osbournes" may rely on the familiar sitcom theme of a family wrestling with daily life, but it manages to push the genre in a new, if slightly skewed, direction.

That's not to say even a rock entrepreneur with the marketing savvy of Sharon Osbourne can't miscalculate. The popularity of the show has put the Osbourne homestead on the Hollywood tour bus schedule, and it is now besieged 20 times daily by tourists. If more episodes are ever shown (only a dozen or so episodes are planned for this season), the family might want to take yet another page from "Ozzie and Harriet." That show was filmed in a replica of the Nelson home Â- safely tucked away from tourists on a studio backlot.

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