Masters of Reality TV 

It's time to sing the praises of The Osbournes.

It's time to sing the praises of The Osbournes, the dope-ass MTV reality show that aired its first season's final episode last Tuesday night. All you purists who think reality TV is the ultimate exercise in lowbrow television dreck: Shut up already. We're tired of hearing your holier-than-thou lunchroom snoot-athons. Do we carry on about how Susan Sontag sucks? Nope. So don't talk about something you haven't even seen.

As much as MTV needs to be smacked around for churning out badly acted teen sex soaps and idiotic spring-break specials, its so-called "reality" programming has been truly pioneering. The Real World, for example, is wholly underrated. Like any good show, it's well put together and entertaining. But what The Real World is truly best at is changing people's perceptions of others. The show was one of the first on television to feature real live gay people, something that probably ruffled a few haystacks in the Bible Belt. But who among the Bubbas didn't shed a tear with the death of the San Francisco cast's HIV-positive Pedro? The Real World even confers humanity upon the chiseled Ivy League frat boys of the world -- truly a feat. The program's casting always seems ridiculous with the first show of each season, but by the end of the season it makes sense. If programming like this has done nothing else, it has whittled away at some of our stereotypes. Take the first season of Survivor. It taught us that dumb-ass bigots like Rudy can actually be quite lovable, and that gay people can be competitive and jerky, too, just like the show's gloating winner, Richard.

"Reality" TV has existed for years, just under different guises. People have always loved seeing real people on TV, an idea that surely must have reached its artistic zenith with The Gong Show. First it was game shows, then talk shows, now it's shows like The Amazing Race and Fear Factor, which combine competition with the pacing of a soap opera, all "performed" by real-life peeps. What makes The Osbournes a step forward in the genre is that it added two more things we love to worship into the mix: celebrity and wealth. It's the first reality show to give us day-by-day glimpses into the life of someone who is rich and famous.

Why does The Osbournes work so well? It's Ozzie and Harriet 2002; the perfect family show at just the perfect time. People are ready for a family with a drug-addicted rock star at the helm. Network sitcoms are waning in the ratings because they play it way too straight. They haven't taken any risks. We want irreverent stuff like The Sopranos, South Park, and Absolutely Fabulous. Ozzy, his wife Sharon, and their kids Kelly and Jack couldn't be better characters if they were actually made for TV. Who ever would have thought that the self-described "Prince of Darkness" would live in a chintz-laden house with such a cute family and a coterie of yipping Barbara Cartlandesque doggies? As screwy as their lives are, the Osbournes are that tight family we all wish we had. It's no surprise the half-hour is the highest-rated MTV program outside of its awards shows. Everyone seems to like it: people who like The Real World, people who like Black Sabbath, and even people who hate metal and have never even heard of Ozzy. The Osbournes is funny, charming, dramatic, asinine, and tasteless. It's reality.

Take the final episode. Sharon and her daughter touch their own vaginas and chase each other around with their soiled fingers. Wow. Then there's the bad language factor. The entire family uses the word "fuck" like it's a conjunction. The show's got more bleeps than a network airing of Goodfellas.

Yet The Osbournes also retains the same formula that made Family Matters so killer (sans Urkel, natch): familial love and support against the odds. The show is a weekly Life with Father. Ozzy is doddering, enfeebled, cute, loving, concerned, and nothing without his wife. Many episodes were spent simply watching him trying to put a trashbag in a trashcan, find the cat in the backyard, or get a sentence out without stuttering like a lawnmower trying to start. The episode with the dogs shitting all over the house was the most hilarious, with Ozzy completely dumbfounded as to what to do, calling a visiting dog therapist "fuckin' loony," and uttering his best repeat catchphrase in his Birmingham hippie brogue, "I mean, come on, man." He's Homer Simpson with a few more brain cells and a dirtier mouth.

His wife, Sharon, is a perfect complement to the feeble Ozzy. She's a very sweet, ridiculously adroit businesswoman and manager who took an ailing rock star now in his fifties, reinvented him, and kept him in the public eye for more than twenty years. She loves her husband, loves her kids, and loves being rich. In one episode she chitchats with the face-lifted, power-walking rich chicks in her neighborhood and invites them over for tea. Yet later that night she hoists a rotten ham over the fence of her noisy Eurotrash neighbors. She's Mrs. Cleaver in leather pants.

Then there are the kids -- the spoiled Kelly and the drama-club stoner Jack. Kelly, though round-faced and naive, seems to have a secret life we only glimpse in wisps -- going out to clubs until 4 a.m., blushing when her dad lectures her about having sex. Jack, with his depression, love of knives, and penchant for dressing up like Sgt. Barry Sadler, seems headed on a one-way ticket to Druggieville himself. They're great because they're so genuinely teenage, so crude and undeveloped. But they are at their best when they're sparring with their parents -- the real stars of the show.

MTV is supposedly developing other shows in the same vein with P. Diddy and Brandy, but it will be hard to better the formula of The Osbournes. No way is Brandy going to let us see her imperfections, and who cares anyway. And P. Diddy? That guy is as dull and uninspired as, well, taking a lame Police song and rapping over it. MTV should just stick with The Osbournes, which it recently renewed for a rumored $20 million.

The TV-haters of the world, those boring bespectacled Book Readers, are having a field day with The Osbournes. Finally celebrity itself has become entertainment; the performers' life is the performance. Some bald French guy's theory has now been proven. But life is short, folks, and The Osbournes is good ol'-fashioned entertaining. It's time to turn off NPR and join The Real World. -- Katy St. Clair

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