The Celeb-Reality Sitcom Magic of ‘The Osbournes’ Is Still Proving Impossible for Other Famous Families to Conjure
In the entertainment industry, famously, “nobody knows anything,” which may be why any successful innovation inevitably gets followed by dozens of copycats. If one sitcom built around a stand-up comic’s stage persona is a hit, why not chase Roseanne with everything from Home Improvement to Titus to Grace Under Fire to Ellen? If the friends of Friends have enraptured audiences, why not try The Single Guy and It’s Like, You Know and Union Square and Boston Common?
But an argument could be made that no TV comedy has had a bigger impact than The Osbournes. As At Home with The Furys attempts to muscle into the celeb-reality sitcom space, it’s worth examining how The Osbournes became such a sensation, and why the Osbournes-alikes that followed haven’t quite popped the same way.
The initial spark for The Osbournes was MTV’s Cribs. A more rock-and-roll take on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Cribs let viewers tour the lavish houses of (mostly) recording artists: the first season included home visits with some of 2000’s biggest names in music, including Sisqo, Colbie Caillat, Big Boi, Sugar Ray and Busta Rhymes. To kick off the series, the pilot includes three of the season’s most famous stars: Moby, Jewel and Ozzy Osbourne. The last of these used the intimate format to introduce his family: wife Sharon, also Ozzy’s manager; and their children, Kelly and Jack. Though other Cribs stars were eventually exposed for misrepresenting their assets on the show, the home the Osbournes showcased was real, as was their charming vibe.
Viewers were so taken with them that, in 2002, Cribs spun off The Osbournes, a look at the family going about their daily lives — indulging their ill-mannered dogs, fighting over a dance with Christina Aguilera and debating whether bubbles are appropriate for a concert headlined by Ozzy, the self-described “Prince of Fucking Darkness.” The show was an unscripted quasi-documentary, but one with the trappings of a TV comedy: I Dream of Jeannie-esque graphics, goofy music selections (including a mid-century crooner take on Ozzy’s song “Crazy Train” as its theme song) and editing that wouldn’t be out of place on a multi-cam sitcom.
The reasons to try to copy the Osbournes format are obvious. The show probably cost MTV almost nothing to make. While a certain amount of staging and coaching by producers was probably involved, as with all “reality” shows, Osbourne family members seem like they could be relied upon to spontaneously do something, at least a few times a week, that would be compelling enough to televise. And although there were definitely bigger stars than Ozzy in the early aughts, that meant he wasn’t really on anyone’s radar, and MTV could get credit for “creating” his reality stardom — and, even moreso, that of his family. It’s all upside with comparatively little risk.
Various networks and platforms have tried to catch more lightning in different bottles, building unscripted sitcoms around established celebrities* of all kinds. There are pop stars looking to pivot, like Donnie Wahlberg (Donnie Loves Jenny: 26 episodes) and Kevin Jonas (Married to Jonas: 16 episodes). There are former child stars having a hard time booking acting roles, like Coreys Feldman and Haim (The Two Coreys: 19 episodes) and Tori Spelling (in Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood, True Tori and Tori & Dean: Cabin Fever: a total of 69 episodes). There are actors apparently hoping to springboard their relatives to show-business careers of their own, like Leah Remini (Leah Remini: It’s All Relative: 10 episodes) and Sylvester Stallone (The Family Stallone: 8 episodes).
It’s not that these Osbournes knockoffs never work. Gene Simmons Family Jewels lasted more than 150 episodes — far longer than The Osbournes, which Sharon ended after four seasons — though I would venture to say Simmons viewers were, on the whole, hate-watching. But part of what gives The Osbournes their appeal is their lack of polish. Surely, there was some degree of artifice and calculation in the way the family presented themselves on camera, particularly the longer the show went on. But they seemed so much more authentically themselves than everyone else who followed. (If Ozzy Osbourne idly said he didn’t know what protein Chicken of the Sea actually was, I for one wouldn’t blink, but I still think Jessica Simpson was just playing dumb about that on her celeb-reality sitcom.) Perhaps that’s why franchises started springing up around people with no (legitimate) performing experience, like the Chrisleys of Chrisley Knows Best, or the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty — that, and production companies could pay them much less than celebrities.
The latest attempt to replicate the success of The Osbournes is Netflix’s At Home with The Furys. The celebrity in question is Tyson Fury, who’s held the title of World Boxing Council heavyweight champion since 2020, and he is at home with his wife, Paris, and their six children because, as we join him in the spring of 2022, he’s recently retired from boxing. The marketing for the show makes it look like a standard “our crazy brood!” show; for example, the opening credits end with Tyson’s three sons flipping off the camera in the American style, before rolling straight into the tumult of a typical morning getting the kids ready for school.
Though that does not include eldest daughter Venezuela: Her parents pulled her out of school when she was 12, as Paris says is traditional for Irish Travellers. Officially, this is so that Venezuela can learn a parent’s trade — Paris claims they’re also home-schooling her — but there’s no evidence that she plans to become a boxer. (Tyson’s brother, fellow boxer Tommy, announces on the show that his girlfriend Molly-Mae Hague is pregnant with their first child, a girl, and they both make it very clear that boxing will not be an acceptable pursuit for her.) When Paris tries to teach Venezuela to cook so that she can follow Paris into stay-at-home motherhood, Venezuela chirps that she won’t need to keep a house as long as Tyson can support her financially. Hotheaded Paris lets Venezuela bait her into denouncing her as a mooch, and a completely avoidable fight ensues. It’s almost as if 12 is too young to make permanent decisions about what your adulthood is going to be like, and that someone other than Paris should be in charge of Venezuela’s education!
Venezuela’s status is just one of many revelations that makes the show hard to watch. There’s also Tyson’s mental health. Tyson has been justly praised for his candor about his various issues, including disordered substance use; for someone in a hyper-masculine-coded field to model the importance of seeking help when you need it is extremely admirable, and naturally, his ongoing challenge with his diagnoses is part of the story At Home is telling. However, it’s one thing merely to read about such struggles in Fury’s self-help book, The Furious Method, it’s another to see him take the low ebbs of his bipolar disorder out on his nearest family members; to see him say that he knows Paris takes the brunt of his bad moods, but shrug that “it is what it is”; and then to see Paris herself tell producers she more or less accepts Tyson’s borderline emotionally abusive treatment — before she turns around and screams at the children in a lot of the footage we see of her.
Still, as off-putting as the show can be, it’s nothing compared to what you find when you give a cursory glance to Tyson’s Wikipedia page, riddled with mentions of his anti-Semitic, homophobic and xenophobic public remarks. Yes, Sharon Osbourne also has offensive, antisocial opinions, but we didn’t know that before a powerful media company made her a reality TV star.
Paris and Tyson have already headlined two documentary series in the U.K., which is probably part of the reason Netflix executives decided to make nine more episodes about the family, despite Tyson’s various scandals and bigotries. But whereas the Osbourne house of the early aughts stayed on the pleasant side of chaotic, even when Sharon was attacking neighbors with an airborne ham, the Fury house as portrayed in At Home isn’t somewhere I really want to spend much time.
Last week’s news about Wayne Brady’s pansexuality included a reminder that he’s also making a reality show about his family, coming next year. Will it be as big a hit as The Osbournes? Probably not. But I’m still going to wait for that one rather than watch more of the Furys; the Bradys seem like they’ll be much more fun.
*This is an important distinction: Yes, Kim Kardashian also headlined what was, for its first several seasons, a half-hour reality sitcom, but her fame did not derive from, shall we say, achievement in a professional field.