Remember last fall when the pundits said, "Reality TV is finished"?
"The Osbournes" is the most talked-about new show on television -- which leads to the inevitable hand-wringing about what has become of us.
Ozzy Osbourne is a heavy metal singer, a little on the far side of 50. His wife, Sharon, is a well-known rock manager who was widely quoted a couple of years ago when she announced she was no longer working with the Smashing Pumpkins because of illness - she was sick of the lead singer. They have a teen-age son named Jack and a teen-age daughter named Kelly, who fight like cats and dogs. In other words, the Osbournes are a hard rock version of Dagwood and Blondie.
MTV filmed the family at home for a documentary about rock star's houses. When network executives saw the footage, they cracked up and suggested doing a whole series. We have seen reality shows before, and we have seen family sitcoms before. But no one had ever tried to do both at once. "The Osbournes" has become the biggest hit MTV ever had, and the most talked-about show on television.
Why? Let's count the ways.
First, it's funny as hell. Only "The Simpsons" has stretched the sitcom format as far, but the cartoon characters in "The Osbournes" are real. This not only makes their craziness more astonishing; it allows them to behave in a way that no writer would dare. If a fictional TV family cursed, fought, or played with rifles the way Ozzy and his brood do, there would be protests from viewers, sponsors and critics.
But you can't get mad with MTV when the Osbournes misbehave. It's a documentary! And that's the show's second great appeal. No matter how confused or dysfunctional your family is, you can look at the Osbournes and say, "Gee, I guess we're doing OK."
I suspect there's a third reason the series is such a success. It deals with parents who clearly went through the '60s head-first, trying to raise their children without any of the old touchstones.
Dad doesn't go to the office, Mom swears like a sailor, and the daughter wants a new tattoo.
Family values? This family has a devil's head over the front door.
Yet, they somehow do function. The parents do set rules. And, in spite of all the craziness, they love each other.
Ultimately, "The Obsournes" is reassuring. The generation gap is bridged by love. It's the real-life "Family Ties." At first, it may look like "Addams Family Ties" or "Manson Family Ties." But when you get up close, the Osbournes are a lot like the rest of us.
It's not exactly the Nelsons, but then again, I guess every generation gets the Ozzy it deserves.