One year ago, if I had free-associated on the name Ozzy Osbourne, the old stock image would have leapt to mind. Bat. Bat. Bat bite bat. And even now, when Ozzy is better known as the headliner at the gold-standard rock festival Ozzfest, the kindly leading man on the reality show The Osbournes (MTV Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. ET), and the one-man resurrection of MTV, I still have to shake the tired bat association away—but it comes back. It always comes back.
It unfolds the same way. The squirming body of the bat struggling in my right fist—held too tightly, out of nerves—while his umbrella wings batter my forearm. Then, the drugged, desperate, exhilarating decision to act. Next, the sudden prick of mammalian bristle on the roof of my mouth. The startling power of the human jaw. The snap—crack? soundless yielding?—of the bat spine. Then, at last, the swelling certainty that I have undeniably gone too far—beyond the illegal or the immoral and into the realm of the unlegislated and the inhuman. The horror arises of sheltering a complicated, toothy, small-boned head (its echolocation going crazy?), now in my own head, and, worse, in my own mouth, pressed in all directions against my tongue and stinging gums.
How did Ozzy, if he did bite the head off a bat, bring himself to do it? What was it like? And am I the only one who wanted, and still wants, to know?
The Osbournes had its season premiere on Tuesday night, and the new episode does little to clarify Ozzy's past lunges into the void: his admitted suicide attempts, his dove decapitation, his night spent snorting red ants. But the show does what it has done in its last 10 episodes: allow viewers to enter an ordinary life that, even without the blood and the porn, is nonetheless relentlessly visceral, physical, id-driven.
On Tuesday's show, Osbourne dreads a visit he's about to pay to the White House. "I don't know how the etiquette is. I'm a slob. I'll scratch my ass when I want to scratch my ass," he tells the camera, at the same time mashing his left hand—with the slate-blue O-Z-Z-Y tattoo on the knuckles—into his nose. "I'll get digged—dug in the ribs by my wife all night."
The Osbournes have a reputation for constantly swearing, but that vocabulary chiefly reflects their love of old-school farce. Acts like ass-scratching and rib-digging are fundamental to them. Earlier in the show, Osbourne's wife Sharon holds up a glittery dental filling. "I swallowed it," she says. "And it took 10 days to pass through my body. It's been a long way."
Later, the kids, Kelly and Jack, slip into their usual banter. "I wipe my ass with your Prada jacket," Kelly says, and Jack replies, "I wipe my ass with your face." At another moment, Kelly describes, in detail, what it looks like when a dog eats feces. Her mother pipes up: "It's recycling." Around this time, Jack loses stamina, saying, "I don't feel like talking about boogers and vomit and shit." (That young man's going to have some explaining to do.)
What makes the gross-out talk in The Osbournes bearable is its flip side: the family's very physical demonstrations of affection and peace. On the season premiere, it became clear again that Osbournes cherish long hugs. They kiss often. They dance. They chase each other around. Kelly, at age 17, still sucks her thumb. And the two adolescent children doze happily on their mother's shoulders, as she sits in the back of the family limo.
The recent claims by Kelly and Jack that some of the show has been scripted don't seem fatal; The Osbournes, with its cartoon interludes and cutty style, is obviously a fiction of some kind. In fact, the show now seems like a series of graphic exchanges edited to lead inevitably to the macabre drama of Sharon's colon cancer. This new season has indeed billed Sharon's sickness hard (the cast has also been joined by the teenage Rob Marcato, whose mother died of colon cancer in July). On Tuesday, MTV showed clips from next week's show: Kelly in a fetal position, Sharon standing tall, and Ozzy—in Sharon's words—"self-medicating."
The family will probably not shy away from candid discussions of the colon, the cancer, and its treatments. And we'll soon see—thanks to the grim stare of reality TV—something of the Prince of Darkness' response to actual sickness. Maybe this will give some clue to who he really is; whether his old invocations of hell were just blather; and whether he feels some special access to death.
For now, that access—and the remains of the nihilist Ozzy of the Black Sabbath days—is visible chiefly in the look he gives the camera when he poses: an utterly frozen expression, one that can look blank, self-satisfied, or murderous. On Tuesday's show, Osbourne's paralyzed face appears in a scene in which a makeup artist preps him for his meeting with President Bush. While whitish makeup goes on, and the black eyeliner, Osbourne's stillness seems impossible: He stares, unmoving, unblinking, for what could be as long as half an hour. He looks unreal. He looks dead. He looks like a guy who could bite a bat.