The neighbors are complaining about loud music in the middle of the night. This is exactly what you would expect on a reality show about the Beverly Hills, Calif., home life of British metal god Ozzy Osbourne, wife Sharon and teenage kids Kelly and Jack--except that the noisy ones are in the manse next door, blaring The Girl from Ipanema, and the Osbournes don't like it one bit. But this is not the best part of the episode. The family retaliates by blasting death metal on the stereo (while Ozzy snores away, his slumber safeguarded by decades of standing in front of deafening amp stacks) and throwing a ham over the hedges. But this is not the best part of the episode either. No, the best part is when a bleary-eyed Sharon and Jack reminisce about their favorite old neighbor: Pat Boone. "He was just the best person ever to live next door to," Sharon says wistfully. "He was such a lovely man."
The Osbournes, MTV's hit "reality sitcom," would be good enough if it only gave you what you would expect--flying meat, crucifixes on the doors and enough bleeped-out cursing to give Pat Robertson the vapors. And it does. What makes it brilliant is its surprising mundanity, the Pat Boone-y-ness of it all: Ozzy puzzling over the satellite-TV remote, flipping out over Kelly's new tattoo (while sporting a few acres of skin art himself) and struggling to fit liners in the trash bin.
Rock-'n'-roll fantasy meets take-out-the-trash reality: this is why The Osbournes (Tuesdays, 10:30 p.m. E.T.) is the most successful new series in MTV history. Its ratings are up 57% since its premiere; 5 million people tuned in to last Tuesday's broadcast alone: Total Request Live-watching teens captivated by the dotty uncle they recognize from his annual Ozzfest tour, old-timer Black Sabbath fans tickled to find the band's singer still breathing. More important, it has done the near impossible: got viewers excited, in a Didja-see-it-last-night? way, about a show that for all practical purposes belongs to TV's most moribund genre, the sitcom.
Ask TV executives--even MTV's--about The Osbournes, and they will tell you the channel got lucky in a way you can't duplicate. (MTV will have to drop the show after one season unless the family consents to another; the network may stretch the 10 planned episodes to 13.) This is true in the literal sense: when Ozzy was created, he bit the head off the mold. NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker says, "I don't think you can just do The Lees now, as in Tommy."
But in a broader sense, what MTV has done right is a case study in what TV often does wrong. The Osbournes is the oldest thing on TV since the test pattern: a nuclear family that eats meals together, shares its problems (even if every third word is bleeped) and survives wacky scenarios. The family dogs are peeing on the carpets, so they call in a pet therapist! Jack goes to a hippie sleep-away camp and hates it! (Kelly: "They make you feed a tree before you feed yourself." Ozzy: "How the f___ do you feed a tree? Put out a ham sandwich?") But the show violates the conventions that make so many sitcoms so, well, conventional. The pace is leisurely, not forced, and the humor derives less from "jokes" than from characters who do something more envelope pushing than cursing: surprise you.