We Are Family

Everyone’s talking about MTV’s new reality show, The Osbournes. My middle-aged library co-workers are impressed with wife/mother Sharon’s household management skills. The suburban neighborhood kids show off their best Ozzy impersonations. Mechanics at our local Wal-Mart say they haven’t missed an episode. Even George Bush admits he’s a fan.

Sam Donaldson and Cokie Robertson seem to be the only holdouts, having recently opined on their ABC talk show that they find the show incomprehensible, profane and too low-cult for their tastes -- issues that don’t seem to have turned many other fans away.

For a show that initially received little hype, The Osbournes is amazingly successful, reaching approximately 6 million households each week. Recent cover stories (Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone) didn’t appear until well into the show’s run, and MTV didn’t do much advertising for the show before its March debut. There are reasons to have doubted its success: The Osbournes arrived at a moment when reality shows seem to be degenerating into more tawdry scenarios; the focus is on a rock star who’s not at the top of the charts (and who is definitely not young, hip or on MTV’s TRL); and it’s broadcast on a cable network not known for family-values programming.

MTV is, however, known for its reality programming. It shouldn’t be that surprising that the network that gave us more than 10 years of The Real World (which seems to have lost touch with reality considering its formulaic casts and conflicts) could do so well with The Osbournes.

None of MTV’s other ventures into reality and reality-esque programming (Road Rules, Cribs, Undressed) have matched The Osbournes’ success -- but somehow the network created a hybrid of its lesser shows that’s greater than the sum of those parts. The Osbournes concept was spun from an episode of Cribs that featured the family moving into its plush new Beverly Hills home and provides the conflict and voyeuristic elements that make The Real World such a guilty pleasure.

The end result is nicely packaged as a wacky sitcom, complete with schmaltzy title song (Ozzy’s “Crazy Train, interpreted by a crooner at lounge-speed), and credits that list each family member by name as well as by role (e.g. Ozzy Osbourne as “The Dad”). Most significantly, The Osbournes currently has the cleverest comic editing on TV. For each shot of Ozzy embodying his rock star persona in front of concert crowds and hordes of fans, we get many more of the 53-year-old out-of-shape father of two shuffling around the house, bewildered by the complicated TV remote or stepping in the dogs’ water dish. During the debut episode, Sharon Osbourne (“The Mom”) describes her teenage son Jack’s status as a loner and outsider at school while we see footage of Jack decked out in camouflage and a helmet, stalking around the house with a family cat, then poking at an empty cardboard box with a bayonet.

The key to The Osbournes’ success is this: It gives us everything we want from reality programming while fully acknowledging the extraordinary nature of the family’s situation. We are privy to the glamorous, excessive side of celebrity-family life -- underage admission to nightclubs like the Roxy for teenage siblings Jack and Kelly, mother-daughter shopping sprees on Ozzy’s credit card, extravagant birthday parties, house calls by pet therapists, and a cameo appearance by Special Guest house visitor Elijah Wood, who graciously helps to clean the dog pee from a soiled cushion in the den.

The Osbourne kids are spoiled in ways we imagine the offspring of rock stars to be. When Jack sasses back to his nanny, Melinda, or when Kelly mopes around because she doesn’t have a special record label of her very own (like Jack), it seems like this is the role for which they’ve been groomed. It’s also hard to blame their parents: Ozzy and Sharon love each other, and their children, very much. When the excesses allowed by the family’s situation lead to trouble -- like Jack’s all-night partying, drug use and club hopping sprees -- the family sits down and talks it out. Granted, this discussion is peppered with censors’ bleeps and is incomprehensible at times due to Ozzy’s slurred speech, but it’s heartfelt and earnest all the same.

Even though he’s a celebrity, Ozzy is also a very real father: He’s a problem-solver, he’s honest (using himself as an example of why Jack and Kelly might not want to abuse drugs or start addictions at an early age), and he’s up-front with his kids. In another favorite Osbournes moment, as the kids get ready to go out for a night of clubbing, their dad implores, ''Don't drink, don't do drugs, and if you have sex, wear a condom,'' much to Kelly’s embarrassment.

During a serious family talk about Jack and Kelly’s respective bad behaviors (Jack’s marijuana use and late-night parties, Kelly’s possession of a fake ID), Ozzy and Sharon work with the teens to try to resolve these issues. What’s refreshing about their approach is that both parents seem open to letting Jack and Kelly in on the discussion -- Sharon begins by asking both of them if what they’re doing is “right” and suggests that the family work together to create a better structure for the kids.

Jack and Kelly are both allowed to whine and to air their complaints, while Ozzy and Sharon seem ready to offer some solutions and advice. When Kelly complains about feeling alienated at school because she’s Ozzy’s daughter, he suggests maybe she should be home-schooled. When Jack refuses to admit to getting high and playing around on the computer in his bedroom (he claims he spends this solitary time reading), Ozzy warns him about the slippery slope of addiction -- what seems like something Jack “chooses” early on will become something he craves and needs later. Ozzy’s best argument to Jack against habitual drug use? “Look at me!”

While neither child seems immediately affected by the family chat, Sharon notes later while talking to the camera that Kelly had come to her the day after the discussion and said she had reconsidered hanging out with some of her friends, the ones with whom she'd gone clubbing.

I worried when watching the show’s debut episode that Kelly’s whining and Jack’s bad attitude would make the show difficult to watch. This is, surprisingly, not the case. Yes, they can be horrible to each other and to their parents and their nanny at times. But they’re also exemplary teenagers. And there are moments when Kelly’s malaise seems strikingly familiar. The way they fight, they way they broadcast their disputes to their parents, and the way they seem constantly both privileged and vulnerable wins me over in the end.

Like Married with Children or The Simpsons, The Osbournes both exaggerates and reflects the state of the modern family, and it does so with near-universal appeal -- proving that reality TV works best when its subject matter is more real.

Alana Kumbier, television editor for PopPolitics, lives in Columbus, Ohio.

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