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Their So-Called Life

June 16, 2002|MICHAEL SKUBE | Michael Skube is an Atlanta writer.

ATLANTA — Like anyone else, Ozzy Osbourne would like some privacy when he's using the john. It's simple courtesy. So the 12 cameras recording "real life" in the Osbourne home six days a week discreetly look away when Ozzy--or someone in the family--is called to the water closet. Television can't get enough of reality--or what it imagines is reality--these days, whether in the form of survivors, moles or big brothers. But if it's reality you want, wouldn't you say a man sitting on a commode is about as real as it gets?

The bathroom's where Ozzy, ordinarily as unself-conscious as a monkey in the zoo, draws the line. Also the bedroom he shares with wife and manager Sharon. Anything else is fair game--which is to say, offered for public consumption--in "The Osbournes," the hit reality show on MTV. And its audience is consuming it more as voyeurs than as viewers. Every episode, about 6 million viewers have watched Ozzy fumble with a channel changer, bicker with his wife and kids (they bicker a lot and Ozzy cusses a lot), wander around the house (Beverly Hills mansion, actually) looking for his socks or whatever. They even watched as the family dog threw up. It's all in the family, this one anyway.

And yet respectable, suit-wearing people love Ozzy, a former drug-and-booze addict who was frontman for the heavy-metal group Black Sabbath in the '70s. He was always something of a freak, with his Technicolor hair and Satanic antics. He was young then and only another strung-out rocker. Now, at 53, he's positively cool, coping with his wife, coping with his kids, coping with himself. Mike Tyson chewed on an opponent's ear and elicited disgust and loathing. Ozzy bit the head off some poor bat (also a dove), and he's been lionized ever since. You have to wonder.

In May, at the White House Correspondents' Assn. dinner, television's talking heads and the pundits of print were smitten. No one--not Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, not the president--was so much the center of fawning attention as Ozzy and Sharon. What explains it? Well, the Washington Post reported it this way: Something about the Osbournes' "skewed domesticity" clicked with the public. "Beneath the freaky facade, Ozzy is us."

Come again?

I'm sorry, but Ozzy is not anyone I know. Even the Osbournes' eldest daughter, Aimee, is embarrassed and would take no part in the show. "I find it so annoying," she told Rolling Stone. "At school, almost every day, some retard would go, 'So, do you guys eat bats?' And I'd like say, 'Yeah, all the time. You should come over, we're having a bat barbecue this week.' "

From the 1950s "Ozzie and Harriet" to Ozzy and Sharon (both couples sharing with us two teenagers) is a long and winding road, every kilometer of it littered with the detritus of pop culture.

"Ozzie and Harriet" was only a sitcom, not self-exposure. In the back of your mind you knew it was staged, but you didn't think about it one way or another. Then, in the 1970s, a mutation occurred. Television became interested in real life, something it knew nothing about. It went looking for a family it could live with, cameras in place, over a period of months, and it found that family in the Louds of California. The results, as anyone who remembers will attest, were not pretty. If this was the American family, switch to the ball game, will you? Better still, turn off the TV.

The Louds were a family unaware of its fault lines. The Osbournes are something else altogether. They actually revel in dysfunction--and the audience revels with them. What fun to be screwed up, vicariously or otherwise. When it comes to this, a show says more about its audience than about its characters.

It was around this time that distinctions between public and private matters began eroding in popular culture. In memoirs, in journalism and elsewhere, the impulse to confess had taken hold. What had been private had to be made public. Pop psychology was rampant, with dubious consequences. Introspection was idle without catharsis, one's soiled linen hung out in full view. Public and private were no longer distinct spheres, each with its own claims and prerogatives, but mirror images of one another. Seen from either end, the other appeared smaller than what we had imagined--and it not infrequently seemed debased. The slimy underside of things came to be seen as the only reality that counted. The rest was illusion.

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