Back in 1981, in an apparent attempt to impress Columbia Records execs that he still had the goods as a publicity-attracting rock star even though he'd left Black Sabbath -- the band he made famous -- Ozzy Osbourne used the occasion of an afternoon business meeting to bite the head off a live dove. Nowadays, of course, that sort of thing would barely be a warm-up stunt on Fear Factor, and Ozzy's dodgy solo career can use a boost. So he's chosen to reveal an even more gasp-inducing surprise: In MTV's instantly addictive new docu-series The Osbournes, the 53-year-old English heavy metal geezer exposes himself as...a loving husband and father. Eminem, take note: The stakes have been raised!
MTV camera crews were permitted to follow Ozzy, his wife/manager, Sharon, and two of their three children for six months as they moved into a huge Beverly Hills house. We watch as they settle into their apparently usual state of shrieking, swearing, and hugging. As MTV editors frantically bleep out the family's nonstop stream of F-words, the Osbournes unpack boxes labeled ''Pots & Pans'' and ''Devil Heads.'' They fuss over where to hang their collections of Satan door knockers and crucifixes, and suss out the complexities of a newly installed satellite TV equipped with a remote control the size of the Los Angeles phone book. (Ozzy watches his favorite, The History Channel, with an intense interest indistinguishable to the untrained eye from glazed-over paralysis.)
Indeed, the heavy metal yowler provokes the kinds of laughs that can make you squirm, or feel some guilt at giggling. Blank-faced, hands quivering as he pours endless cans of diet Coke into an endless supply of glasses, Ozzy appears to be a burned-out case. Look him up in rock & roll histories, and along with hopeful notations that he gave up drinking in the late '80s, there are factoids (fictoids?) about him joining his drummer in taking acid every day for two years. On The Osbournes, 16-year-old daughter Kelly, a grumpy lump with pink hair, gets annoyed with her dad at dinner because Ozzy can't hear what she's saying. When she whines about this, he says, ''Well, you haven't been standing in front of 30 billion decibels for 35 years!'' and everyone around the table cracks up. It's sweetly self-deprecating, but it makes you wonder: Are we laughing with Ozzy or at him, and does this distinction even matter to the MTV audience?
The best thing about The Osbournes is that it emphasizes the notion that at a certain point in a performer's career, the great circus that is rock & roll becomes a job -- a way to put food on a large table, keep the kids' hair dyed, and (as happens in the second episode) hire a pet therapist to analyze the family's passel of disgustingly untrained dogs and cats. In the premiere, Sharon leads the perennially dazed Ozzy to The Tonight Show's Burbank studios, where we watch him don a ludicrously fringed mesh shirt and fail to comprehend the kindly jokes a thoroughly affable Jay Leno makes with him before taping; then we get a mercifully brief glimpse of his performance. Among metalers, Ozzy can still bellow with the best of them, but it's all the same old feedbacky sludge. One assumes Ozzy makes the dough to afford his L.A. palace from songwriting royalties on Black Sabbath's back catalog, and from the concert tours that Sharon, clearly the brains of this outfit, books for Ozzy and his band.
Frequently, The Osbournes is downright heartwarming. Ozzy and Sharon adore morose Kelly and moody 15-year-old son Jack; they're always giving the kids affectionate squeezes and bits of advice. We may laugh at addled Ozzy telling Kelly, before she leaves for a night on the town, ''Don't drink, don't do drugs, and if you have sex, wear a condom,'' but think about it: How many ''normal'' parents make a point of doing this? Good for Ozzy and Sharon. They seem to have a solid marriage. When they snuggle and kiss in a Tonight Show hallway, Kelly squinches her face in an embarrassment viewers of all ages will recognize. ''Wha?'' asks Ozzy, teasing daughter and squeezing wife. ''We're married!'' ''You're too old!'' squeals Kelly.
Rock & roll's greatest cliche is the Who's line ''Hope I die before I get old.'' The Osbournes proves that if you age with at least a few brain cells intact, you can become something arguably greater than a rock deity: a TV star.