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Bark at the Buffoon

Ozzy isn't your typical TV dad

By Gina Arnold

WHENEVER I BUY a magazine that costs $3.50 or more, like US or People, I feel guilty. After all, it would only take three or so such purchases to buy a nice paperback that I'd read and reread, whereas I'll throw out a copy of Rolling Stone next week. Nevertheless, I just had to buy last week's issue of Entertainment Weekly with the Osbourne family on the cover. Who could resist finding out more about the show? Apparently, in the past five weeks, the Osbournes have replaced The Simpsons as television's new first family--and rightly so.

I knew the instant I heard about The Osbournes--a "reality" TV series on MTV in which cameras follow former Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne and his family around their home doing ordinary tasks--that it would be a huge hit. Ozzy Osbourne is just plain funny. If you're a fan, you probably think he's a huge buffoon; if you aren't, well, the sight of the slurred-voice, bleary-eyed, pot-bellied silly man attempting to vacuum the living room is even more hilarious.

Any description of The Osbournes makes the show sound terribly boring, but it's not, probably because its underlying theme--"rock stars are people too"--is fairly compelling. And, of course, there is something undeniably satisfying about seeing that the rich and famous have problems. Ozzy's problems include an inability to use household appliances, control his two teenagers and many pets, and deal with a wife who both henpecks and manages him almost into a stupor. He also has a bum leg.

Meanwhile, his kids' biggest problem is that their dad is Ozzy Osbourne. The younger one, Jack, is treated sycophantically by everyone he knows. The older one, Kelly, says that her schoolmates won't let her forget for a single minute that her dad once bit the head off a bat "like, a million years ago."

One sinister aspect of all this hilarity is that according to EW, Ozzy is still a huge substance abuser, drinking a self-described "vat" of red wine a day and taking Vicodans for his leg pain. "If it says take one every five hours, I take five every one," he says, and he doesn't seem to be joking. MTV downplays this aspect of the Osbourne family, but it's still a scary thought that MTV is aggrandizing them at all. And in a way, the downplaying does them a disservice. I want to know more about the dark side of being an Osbourne since, despite living in a huge mansion in Beverly Hills, there is something strangely unenviable about their life. Like their cohorts the Simpsons, they possess foibles that are easy to recognize and deride. No one really wants to be like Homer Simpson. Rock star or not, does anyone really want to be like Ozzy Osbourne?

The Osbournes successfully takes as its model Ozzie and Harriet. And there's no denying that the show has a certain charm that the proposed copycats--MTV alone is planning ones on P. Diddy and Brandy--will be able to replicate. But the success of The Osbournes proves that Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes on Camp" still applies--and that's despite 9/11, when irony supposedly died along with the victims in the Twin Towers. According to Sontag's immensely influential essay, the notion of "camp" is characterized by a love of the theatrical, the artificial or exaggerated, which "converts the serious into the frivolous." It represents "a victory of style over content, aesthetics over morality," producing a kind of moral and political disengagement, and that certainly describes The Osbournes--a show in which nothing happens--to a T.

In a similar vein, VH1 is currently airing a biopic titled Warning: Parental Advisory that makes fun of Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center and its quest to institute music censorship in the wake of the proliferation of dirty rock lyrics in the '80s. Mariel Hemingway plays Tipper; Griffin Dunne plays Frank Zappa; Dee Snider plays himself. Talk about camp! True, the PMRC was a misguided effort, but in this case, "moral and political disengagement" is masquerading as a righteous anti-censorship stance, and the result is--like The Osbournes' vulgar riches--a little bit sick. As an aesthetic movement, real campiness has its fun side. Sadly, these examples of the new camp, though on the surface quite diverting, remind one of how some people in history allegedly fiddled while Rome burned.

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From the April 25-May 1, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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