There's Ozzy, but no Harriet in sight

TV: The new MTV reality series may be edgy, but it's great television, unlike UPN's `The Random Years' and `As If.'

March 05, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The Osbournes, a new MTV reality series on the family life of rock star Ozzy Osbourne, is the most refreshing, funny and subversive 30 minutes of television I have seen this season.

Understand that The Osbournes isn't for everyone. Even though it is bleeped, a certain vulgar four-letter word is used more often and in more innovative ways than on even HBO's The Sopranos. Sex and drugs are discussed frankly with the two Osbourne teens who appear in the series, 17-year-old Kelly and 16-year-old Jack.

But I can't remember the last time I laughed this hard at a new series, and part of the fun is the wicked way it explodes one of the most fundamental genres of American television: the family sitcom. This is Father Knows Best in a death mask, or The Cosby Show with Cliff Huxtable waggling his tongue suggestively at the camera.

The producers get it from the opening credits, with chirpy, family sitcom music playing as a camera offers the establishing shot of the Beverly Hill city limits sign. Then it's all sunshine, boulevards and palm trees until we come to the new home that the Osbournes are moving into. Among the first things the camera shows us are three boxes being unloaded from the moving van. The first says "pots & pans." The second, "linens." And the third, "death heads."

For those unfamiliar with Osbourne (and if you are, this series probably isn't for you), he is perhaps most widely known for biting the heads off bats on stage. Some call him "The Godfather of Heavy Metal." He's definitely in the godfather age range. While neither he nor Sharon, his wife and manager, will give their ages, there is a reference in the pilot that puts Ozzy on the dark side of 50.

Sharon, the first Osbourne we meet, could almost pass for an upper-middle-class soccer mom, although she does use a certain word a lot with her children. She is definitely as close as it gets to sane in this household. As she is explaining how this is their 24th house, and that all the crucifixes they are having carved into the woodwork might make it impossible to sell, dad walks by carrying a rifle.

"Where do you want me to put my gun, Sharon?" Ozzy asks. "Under the bed?"

"Wherever you want," she says as if talking to a child.

Later in the episode, Ozzy finds a bayonet, and he and Jack try to attach it to the rifle. Talk about a father-son bonding moment.

Ozzy can do almost nothing by himself. Jack has to show him how to work the TV remote, while Sharon has to lead him by the hand from the studio's break room to the makeup room during a Tonight Show appearance.

Ozzy is wearing a crocheted top for the Tonight Show gig that looks as if it had been stolen from Morticia Addams' closet. But the droopy, stringy sleeves get tangled every time Ozzy sits down backstage, and Sharon has to keep cutting him free with scissors.

I swear, Ozzy is practically in a coma. But he's hilarious as this heavily tattooed, somnambulant, anti-TV dad. Wait until you hear him lecturing on the evils of cigarette smoking: "You don't even cop a buzz off it."

And, yet, there's love here, and the family functions. More than functions, in fact. The series not only subverts the family sitcom, it questions the very notions of American patriarchal success. Sure, Ozzy's almost in a coma, but his family loves him, and he owns a mansion in Beverly Hills.

Can more traditional dads, in their business suits and corporate straitjackets, say the same? Maybe they should have tried eating bats instead of chasing that MBA.

The Osbournes premieres at 10:30 tonight.

Shows debut on UPN

UPN also premieres two new series tonight aimed at young audiences: The Random Years, a sitcom about three male roommates in their early 20s, and As If, an ensemble drama based on a British series about six young people aged 18 to 20. Neither shows much sign of intelligent - or even interesting - life.

The most noteworthy aspect of The Random Years is the producers' attempt to create a Kramer character (the idiot savant played by Michael Richards on Seinfeld) for a new generation. Here he's called Wiseman (Joshua Ackerman), but he can't even get the idiot part right.

As If mainly is about who's got the hots for whom among the six leading characters and their various acquaintances. The most noteworthy aspect of this pilot: how poorly written and vapid it is by the standards of network drama.

As If airs at 9 p.m., and The Random Years at 9:30 p.m. on WUTB (Channel 24).

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