Remembering ‘The Osbournes,' the Show That Paved the Way for the Kardashians
If it weren't for Ozzy, Sharon, and the only two of their kids willing to be filmed, we may never have seen the explosion in family-based reality TV that followed.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK
It's late afternoon on the September 14, 2002, and Ozzy Osbourne's too drunk to make it to an award show. It only matters so much because his wife, Sharon, has been nominated for an Emmy as part of the production team behind the reality show that bears her husband's last name. That means someone from the family ought to be at that evening's Primetime Emmy Creative Arts Award telecast. Jack, a bratty and relatively friendless teenage boy and the youngest of three, doesn't want to go either. "I was like, 'Why? We're not going to win,'" he says, more than a decade later. Turns out he was wrong.
Somewhere between offering an intimate look at the so-called Prince of Darkness' pre-retirement domesticity and helping to turn MTV from a music video channel into a reality TV one, The Osbournes ended up as the first show of its kind to win a Primetime Emmy. In 2001, reality TV was still tucked into a broader "non-fiction program" category that accounted for more dramatic shows—Trauma: Life in the ER—or traditional documentary. The Osbournes, on that day when only Sharon and middle daughter Kelly bothered to turn up to the Emmys, were some of the first to pilot the kind of TV that we're so used to now: cameras following families around, shooting the banality of life in their homes and wider suburbia.
But, as any MTV obsessive from the time would already know, The Osbournes wasn't even the first time Ozzy and his family had invited an MTV camera crew into one of their skull-laden mansions. Back in 2000, when Jack was showing camera operators his revolving CD collection—"I've got System of a Down, Rage Against the Machine, Incubus, Slipknot"—the family were featured on an episode of Cribs. Like the perfect prequel to the four-series show that would air from 2002 to 2005, showing us everything from their Pomeranians shitting in the house to Ozzy's near-death quad bike accident, that episode of the channel's celebrity interiors show distilled so much of what would turn The Osbournes into MTV's most successful show to date, at that time.
"What kept me watching," says Michelle Kay, a PR rep from the Midlands and self-confessed fan, "was probably the same as everyone else on a surface level: the antics, the unconventional nature of their relationships. A crazy matriarch and rock and roll, slurring husband trying to parent rebellious teens. Almost every time Kelly or Jack would say something rude to their parents, I'd always think, 'I could never imagine saying that to my parents—ever.'"
And now, half of the on-screen Osbournes are back. Sunday sees the UK debut of a History Channel show centered on Ozzy and Jack taking a road trip together to tick items off their "historical bucket lists." Ozzy's obsession with World War II documentaries and memorabilia underpins the whole thing. Really, it doesn't matter what the show's about because by now Ozzy's family has become a form of visual currency. The assumption is that people will watch them. You don't have to be an original Sabbath fan or, in this case, a European history buff to care. The Osbournes are essentially the British version of the Kardashians: a famous father, a ruthless "momager," and children who grew up in front of millions before turning into tabloid fodder, then settling down.
In most of the show's early episodes, nothing really happens. There's a point in the pilot, for example, when Kelly almost sets the family's brand-new kitchen on fire. That blunder was considered significant enough for the final edit, in an episode largely concerned with watching the family unpack. That template, of making the mundane matter, was actually set years earlier, with PBS' proto-reality show, An American Family, filmed in 1971 and broadcast in 1973. A camera crew followed around one family, the Louds, filming mother Pat buying her groceries, both parents relaxing with friends, and their children rehearsing in bands or making classmates giggle during lessons.
But what The Osbournes did was different, slick with the sheen of quick-cut edits, and closer to scripted reality than the documentary tone of An American Family or its 1974 working-class BBC spin-off, The Family. MTV made Ozzy relevant again, to a generation who'd feasibly not realized the theme tune was a crooner-style cover of his single "Crazy Train."
"I knew absolutely nothing about Ozzy before watching the show," says actress and big-time Osbournes fan Leesa Darius, from California. "I was raised by extremely conservative Christian parents, so hearing his music was off the table. I instantly became a fan of the show because their home was the antithesis of mine in the most alluring way: they swore at one another, there was drinking, there was screaming at everyone and everything—and at 13 that was super-cool."
Episode eight of season one: Jack's friend, Jason Dill, comes to stay and is basically a disgusting slob the whole time
You can see the same dynamic at play in Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It's glossier, and more wrapped up in the sexuality of the various Kardashian and Jenner women, but similarly offers insight into an "unconventional" (read: rich and loud) family. Most kids who watched the Kardashian siblings play-fight probably didn't know, or remember, that Kim et al's father was one of the lawyers who fought for OJ Simpson's innocence in the Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman murder trial.
In the Kardashians' case, Kim's sex tape and Kris Jenner's self-promotion savvy elevated their family name from one corner of the "trial of the century" to mass media. In Ozzy's, his reinvention as a hobbling dad—shuffling across the floor and wobbling through his stuttering sentences—cast him in a new light for children born after Black Sabbath's peak (and, especially, those whose parents hadn't introduced them to the bat-biter beforehand).
Both families turn to a matriarch to look after everything, toiling to keep her family relevant. And apparently it's worked, with this new Ozzy and Jack show arriving about a decade later than you'd have thought necessary. In the time since the Osbournes' exit from MTV, their show format has been replicated incessantly. A heavy metal singer helped lead us into the world of The Real Housewives of Orange County, Atlanta and Cheshire; of Laguna Beach: the Real Orange County and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. Really, it's quite the legacy.
"I just liked that the show was basically about a Brummy family who've somehow ended up in this mansion in LA," says Marna, a charity worker from Manchester. "It was incongruous. There wasn't any artifice like with the Kardashians, which feels a lot more scripted." Ozzy taught us that you can make just about anyone marketable, once you place cameras in their home to humanize them. He said as much himself in a 2002 radio interview, when the host asked if what we saw onscreen was "really them."
"That's the way we are," Ozzy replied. "I was walking around Manhattan and people who wouldn't generally come up to me were going: 'It's them—it's Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne.' We broadened our audience by millions." And that's the sum of it. They shrewdly turned a previously troubled and violent frontman into a lovable old dad—albeit, a dad who missed the Emmys that one time.