Come to think of it, one of the nice things about being rich and famous and living in Beverly Hills (or Bel Air or Brentwood) would be the chance to turn on the sprinklers and douse snoopy tourists lurking outside the front gate. We've come to think of it because it happens more than once on "The Osbournes," returning to MTV for a second savory season tonight at 10:30.
Certainly it's funny, and quirky, and wacky, this harbinger of a new breed of situation reality show, but there's something sweet and hopeful about it, too. Both aging rockster Ozzy Osbourne and his magnificently resilient wife, Sharon, are British imports, and yet they have come to epitomize an American family for the new millennium, nutty neighbors who can be visited only vicariously and only once a week.
Some things haven't changed from last season. Ozzy onstage still has a fondness for pulling down his trousers and showing the audience his British bum, which MTV daintily blurs out, perhaps more for aesthetic reasons than out of corporate prudery. Daughter Kelly is moving along with her own semi-musical career, taking to the stage at the ridiculous MTV Movie Awards show in a jacket that has a less-than-tasteful "Suck This" embroidered on its back. It seems, if this is possible, innocently obscene.
Son Jack, the coolest uncool or the uncoolest cool kid around, mans the sprinkler system when the snoops come, playfully dons a gas mask and helmet, announces that "I don't strive to want to become a great big shining star" like his father, fractures his elbow when he jumps off a pier into the Pacific, and delightedly takes note of the fact that McRib is back as they pass a McDonald's in their elegant SUV.
When Kelly scoffs at his excitement over this trivial turn of events, Jack scolds her by saying, "It's the little things that count." And when he's being treated for the injured elbow and doctors ask whether he is allergic to any medication, he impulsively responds, "No -- especially Vicodin."
All this and more happens in the first two episodes. There is also a bombshell of sorts in the second: Sharon confronts the fact that she has been diagnosed with colon cancer. This will not be a surprise to viewers who have followed the family's exploits in the pop press, but everyone is likely to be struck by her bravery and even flippancy in dealing with the disease and the chemotherapy that's used to treat it. "I'm not ready to croak yet," she says very Britishly. "And definitely not with a wig on."
Ozzy is off in London somehow managing to tour with his band or somebody's band, and he is understandably crestfallen at being away from her in a time of crisis. "She's my whole world," he says solemnly, calling her both "the best friend I've ever had" and "the worst friend I've ever had." He seems poignantly helpless without her and appropriately, on a London stage, sings "Mama I'm Coming Home."
The Osbournes also visit Washington, showing up at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. They rub elbows, or at least lay eyes on, Harrison Ford, Wolf Blitzer and of course President Bush, who mentions Ozzy in his remarks. This inspires Ozzy to stand up and accept the crowd's ovation -- an ovation probably prompted by the fact that he can stand up in the first place.
On the road, Ozzy hits the bottle, though considering all the other substances he must have abused over the years, liquor seems innocuous. He's tried the 12-step program, Sharon notes, but never makes it past Step 3. Ozzy is not a very good advertisement for dissipation, but he has a mad dignity nonetheless.
Many of the funniest moments come about thanks to wickedly clever editing and the use of judicious music cues; when Jack clumsily jumps off the pier and plops sloppily into the water, we hear an old tune called "Gentleman Jack, the Ladies' Man" on the soundtrack. Here and there one senses the director and film editors making fun of the Osbournes -- laughing at them instead of with them -- and that's not nice, or necessary.
Mostly, the Osbournes are very much in on the joke. Opening a newly purchased CD, Sharon declares, "We're listening to Judy Garland tonight," and an agonized Ozzy shouts, "Oh no we're not!" A minute or two later, a caged bird in the house goes into some sort of fit, and Ozzy, who infamously used to bite off bat heads onstage, takes the bird out of its cage and tenderly puts its head in his mouth. For whatever reason, this calms the creature down.
Most of the real innovations in TV comedy in recent years have come from cable, going back to Garry Shandling's inspired hybrid "The Larry Sanders Show" on HBO (and, even before that, "It's Garry Shandling's Show" on Showtime) and continuing up through "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the Larry David comedy on HBO that is mostly unscripted and in which David plays a caricature of himself. MTV's contribution is a stunning breakthrough likely to breed innumerable imitations in months and years to come, even if a VH1 version starring Liza Minnelli and her new husband died aborning.
For all the seeming freakiness in the family members' lives, "The Osbournes" is not a freak show. The children are spoiled but in a seemingly benign way. What's apparent is that this is a mansion filled with love, much of it radiating from Sharon and her devotion to the muttering, wandering Ozzy. They aren't dysfunctional, at least not by contemporary standards. They're adorable. "The Osbournes" is the sitcom of the future, but fortunately this part of the future has arrived early.