Essential lessons from `The Osbournes’

Dec 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

On “Good Morning, America,” Diane Sawyer called the Osbournes “America’s favorite dysfunctional family.” There are few people I’d rather not disagree with more than the fair Diane, but I don’t think the Osbournes are dysfunctional at all. They’re functional. They’re functioning. They’re an American dream: They get paid for simply living their lives and being themselves.
MTV throws so many ideas against the wall and puts so many “innovative” programs on the schedule that it was bound to hit a bull’s-eye eventually. It’s been a long time since “Real World” started and since the loopy heyday of “Beavis and Butt-Head.” But the success of “The Osbournes” seems to have taken even MTV by surprise. It’s become essential television in the way that “The Sopranos” is.
More and more, it seems, essential television is on cable. I don’t think of “The West Wing” as essential; I can go months without seeing it and feel guilt-free. In fact, when I do watch I tend to get ticked off by the smug self-righteousness and rote Hollywood liberalism of the thing. I actually think George W. Bush is a less boring president than Martin Sheen. He’s a mite taller too.
And now for something a bit serious
“The Osbournes” returned for a second season on MTV last week. On the next episode to air-Tuesday, Dec. 3, 10:30 (ET)-things in the Osbourne household become a bit less wacky. In fact a nervous MTV issued a bulletin to critics reassuring them that the content of this episode didn’t represent a major change in the direction of the show, as if we would all panic and fret if “The Osbournes” had a serious moment or two.
I don’t think people watch the Osbournes just to laugh at them. I think they now have an emotional investment in this anything-but-typical clan-a zany family that nevertheless celebrates the whole idea of familyness.
What happens on the Dec. 3 episode is that Sharon Osbourne, both the soul and the backbone of the household, learns that the internal bleeding she has experienced turns out to be a symptom of colon cancer. She begins chemotherapy treatment and what is likely to be a long, arduous process of recovery.
Through this, at least the parts we see on TV, she remains terrifically chipper and, in the best British tradition, stiff-upper-lippy. Over in England, Ozzy, who has pulled himself together to the degree that he can tour with a band, describes himself as “heartbroken,” and looks it. For all the laughs built in to every show, the love story of Sharon and Ozzy is one of the most touching ever seen in episodic TV, at least in a show that is classified as a comedy.
We all know that as Fred Allen said, imitation is the sincerest form of television. So there will be plenty of copies and replicas of “The Osbournes,” even on the broadcast networks. It’s probably just as well that the planned VH1 version with Liza Minnelli and her very peculiar husband didn’t come off, because it’s obvious they were just going to be held up to ridicule. Liza doesn’t seem to have a clue what a self-parody she’s become. The husband looks like he doesn’t care as long as the money’s good. But it all fell apart in a flurry of charges and counter-charges between the subjects and the producers.
Redefining the sitcom
“The Osbournes” has resonance. It continues the ongoing redefinition of “family” in American society. And it contributes to the ongoing redefinition of “sitcom” in American television. There doesn’t seem to be a name for what “The Osbournes” is. A situation reality show? A “reali-com”? Whatever it is, it should give Hollywood writers pause, because it’s part of the wider genre of scriptless entertainment, a form that includes “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” and “The Bachelor.” The population of this genre is bound to increase, perhaps even explode.
It’s encouraging and inevitable for a number of reasons. Television has educated the audience about television, if about little else, and people, even kids, now know all the formulas: the formulas for gags within sitcoms, the formulas for the 22-minute plots with the tidy endings and facile moralistic “messages” included in some of them-usually about being yourself or being happy with yourself-whatever. Everything has been recycled to the point of numbingly predictable ritual.
Not that the broadcast networks have been entirely bereft of new ideas in sitcoms. NBC’s “Scrubs,” also in its second season, seems a breakthrough in terms of style and storytelling-the sudden fantasy sequences, the editing that keeps everything sort of precarious, the kinds of cinematic effects that are especially impressive considering the tight schedule on which weekly TV shows are produced.
But not even “Scrubs” is as revolutionary as “The Osbournes,” which is liberated and liberating in its free-form freedom and the way laughs are generated mostly in post-production. And it helps, too, that the Osbournes themselves are funny and say funny things. Young Jack is a sly and witty kid. On the first show of the new season he observed that “throwing a TV out the window is very 1982,” a reference to an occurrence from last season.
In the next episode he fractures an elbow after jumping off a pier into the ocean. A doctor asks whether he’s allergic to any medication, and Jack says quickly and wickedly, “No-especially Vicodin.” Daughter Kelly, onstage at the MTV Movie Awards, sings “I’m not a baby,” and in the wings, Sharon, who calls herself a “typical Jewish mother,” exclaims supermaternally, “My baby!”
Taking the cure
Meanwhile Ozzy, on tour, is trying for the umpteenth time to cure himself of alcoholism. A sort of guru attempts to distract him with yoga and poetry readings. Ozzy’s reactions are priceless, and they’re something anyone who has tried to kick any habit can identify with.
For such a seemingly freaky family, the Osbournes have many moments that seem familiar and downright normal. Even wholesome. The bleeped four-letter words are now so de rigueur that you hardly notice them. What comes through more strongly than the outrageousness of the Osbournes’ lives is their love for one another and the immutable durability of the family unit.
“The Osbournes” answers questions some of us were asking 20, 30 years ago about what would happen to rock stars if they lived to get old. For all the posturing that goes on in rock and pop music, for all the instruments that have been ritualistically destroyed in onstage tantrums at the ends of concerts, for all the braying about trashing old values and breaking with the past, tradition really wins out in the end. “The Osbournes” is breakthrough TV with a fresh perspective on the things that never really change-venerable ideas in a brash new package. It’s one of the loveliest as well as one of the funniest shows on television.