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Rocking My Life Away

May 1, 2002 12:00 AM ET

So you're a big fan of The Osbournes? Well enjoy the next fifteen minutes, because unless you're an equally big fan of trivia games and "Where Are They Now?" features -- or, more promisingly, a genuine heavy-metal head who makes a yearly summer trek out to Ozzfest -- you're unlikely to be seeing very much of them in the not-too-distant future. Despite its current ubiquitous popularity, The Osbournes is destined for a very short run.

That's ridiculous, you scoff -- 7.8 million people watched the show's most recent episode. Everybody loves The Osbournes -- from all the hip magazines (including this one) to all your best friends, from the local newspaper TV critic to your math teacher. Didn't I see the hilarious episode where Ozzy stumbles around in his backyard looking for the family's cat, or insists that he is "the fucking Prince of Darkness" when his wife Sharon suggests that a bubble machine be included in the stage effects on his upcoming tour? You can even perfectly mimic the slur and stuttering of Ozzy's war-torn, rock-star English accent. And there's something on the show for every generation, from the club-hopping, cell phone-slinging, rebellious-but-loving children Jack and Kelly, to the battling-but-beguiling Ozzy and Sharon, just two overwhelmed parents trying to hold the family together against impossible odds that include their own many shortcomings. Aren't they really just every other contemporary, expletive-deleted family?

No, they're only like families on television. And far from being some sort of innovative television breakthrough (dream on, MTV), The Obsournes are the Beverly Hillbillies in heavy-metal disguise, the Simpsons in 3D. If fathers were once the benevolent family dictators on TV, gently but firmly running the state of the sit-com household, they're now routinely portrayed as buffoons, incapable of making the simplest decision -- or even articulating a lucid sentence -- without the assistance of their effortlessly wiser, craftier wives and smarter, defter children. It's the biggest cliché on the small screen, and has been for ten years.

Near the end of the Rolling Stone cover story on The Osbournes, Ozzy tells the writer, Erik Hedegaard, "The real fact of the matter is, sometimes I look at this TV show and I feel sad." Hedegaard agrees with him, and says, "When I'm not laughing, I'm feeling the same way." What's that sadness about? Well, I think it's because Ozzy realizes that ultimately people are laughing at him, not with him. He came by those trembling hands and that mummy-like shuffling gait the hard way, through years of addiction. You don't have to believe that he's the Prince of Darkness to understand that he's haunted by more demons than you're ever going to see on this show.

And, fuck it, I'm just going to say it: Ozzy is an important artist. He helped invent heavy metal with Black Sabbath, helped modernize it with his solo career, and helped keep it alive with his Ozzfest tours. And his influence does not stop with that genre. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, among innumerable other bands, all developed out of a sonic mix in which Black Sabbath was at least as significant as the Ramones. And, not to credit the many idiotic lawsuits he's had to face, but Ozzy's music was once rightly perceived as a threat. Now fifty-three, Ozzy is obviously a sweet guy who is charmingly willing to make fun of himself. But to have accomplished all that he has and end up being the butt of tired jokes by every hack newspaper columnist in the country can't be very satisfying. In fact, as he put it, it's sad.

The same squares who marveled twenty years ago when they realized for the first time that Mick Jagger wasn't really Satan, but, in fact, could speak French and order food properly in fancy restaurants, now are stunned to learn that Ozzy Osbourne has a family and gets pissed off if the neighbors make too much noise. But the difference with Ozzy is that people -- both young and old, I'm afraid -- feel superior to him. Shows like Cribs, which take you inside the luxurious world of rock stardom, trade on a kind of voyeurism, the same unsettling thrill you get when you visit clothing stores or posh neighborhoods and see things you'll never be able to afford to wear or places you'll never be able to live. But the sloppiness, fighting, cursing and general dysfunctionality of The Osbournes reassure its audience, and diminish Ozzy's wealth and genuine achievements. "Thank God we're not as fucked-up as that," viewers think, and then pick up the remote.

The pleasure of that self-satisfaction is inevitably short-lived, though, and that's why, however popular the show may be at the moment, The Osbournes is not going to be around very long. The show itself is entertaining and fun enough, and very well done. That's not the problem. It's the people in the audience who could stand to think a little more about who and what they're watching and the uncomfortable reasons why.

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