by Kathy M. Newman

It is the act for which he is best known. But in truth, Ozzy Osbourne never meant to bite the head off of a bat. In fact, the whole biting-heads-off-of-flying-creatures bit started as a publicity stunt gone wrong.

Osbourne and his manager and future wife Sharon arrived at the office of a CBS record executive in 1982, not long after Osbourne had split from Black Sabbath. Osbourne had three doves in the pockets of his coat and he hoped to release them, in the style of a magician, to impress the record executives. But two of the doves died in his pockets, and, when the third one took flight, Osbourne grabbed it and bit off its head. Some say Osbourne was drunk at the time. He and Sharon were thrown out, and were told they would "never work again."

But the dove incident, once reported, made Osbourne into an instant sensation, and, in essence, launched his solo career. A few years later when a fan threw what Osbourne thought was a rubber bat onto the stage, Osbourne put it in his mouth, and, when he realized the bat was alive, he "inadvertently tore its head off."

If you are wondering what kind of person bites the heads off of bats and birds BY ACCIDENT, you can check out the deliberately unzany antics of Ozzy Osbourne, his wife Sharon, and two of their three maudlin teenagers on MTV's The Osbournes (Tuesdays, 10:30 pm).

The joke is easy to get. MTV is calling this show the first "reality sitcom," making clear references to America's first family of televisual tranquility, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. The producers use a campy blend of 1950s style animation to "frame" the Beverly Hills mansion in which the Osbournes reside in the opening credits, after which the program follows the Osbournes Real World-style as they travel in limousines to The Tonight Show, throw a celebrity-filled, catered Halloween birthday party for 17-year-old daughter Kelly, pick up 16-year-old son Jack from a school camping trip, bicker about their constantly pissing and crapping menagerie of dogs and cats and watch TV. Father knows best, as Ozzy tells his kids to use condoms but not drugs, and feigns anger when Kelly gets a tiny heart-shaped tattoo on her hip.

Ozzy himself is a mesmerizing figure, stumbling about, hard of hearing, and foul-mouthed -- with nearly every other word bleeped by the censors. At 53, he really does know best, as he has been clean for 13 years. With his long hair, stout middle, craggy face and leathery tattoos, it appears that rock stars do not age gracefully for us, not only because of the hard living, but also because rock culture constructs itself as being about youth and generational rebellion. And yet Osbourne is weirdly endearing, devoted to his wife, playful with his kids and generally helpless.

The unbearable normalcy of the Osbourne household suggests, as one reviewer has noted, the extent to which hard rock/metal/goth culture has been absorbed into the mainstream. Osbourne's difficult-to-understand accent is also a faded reminder of his working-class roots in Birmingham, England, where he worked in a slaughterhouse and served time in prison before becoming a heavy metal legend. His children, with their nanny from Melbourne, have had a different upbringing, painfully evident when the dour-faced Jack tells one of the Osbourne's domestics to "get a real job." Ironically, perhaps, this show is hard evidence that being a star, and maintaining star status, is, in itself, a "real job."

The Osbournes might be the most heralded of the spring crop of "mid-season" replacement series. As for the rest, the selection is anachronistic, as new-millennium television travels back in time for leading ladies, plot devices and narrative settings.

Not Bad For Government Work

Fox's midseason replacement for the faltering Ally McBeal is called American Embassy (Monday, 9 pm). Set in London, a fresh-faced actress named Arija Bareikis plays the title character, Emma Brody. She loses her luggage, makes out with a CIA agent and meets some handsome lords -- all in the first episode. While in the Cold War era young Americans flocked to work in foreign embassies, since then the Ugly American has been staying stateside. Our post 9/11 moment might see a boost in patriotic diplomacy, though this show was in production before the fall of the WTC. Oh, and I forgot to mention, the main character's best friend is a transvestite.

Sally Field, herself one of television's first child stars (Gidget and The Flying Nun), is returning to the small screen to work as a Supreme Court Justice in ABC's The Court (Tuesday, 10 pm).The script includes lines like: "I hate your politics, and I despise your cologne." Ouch. I'd rather watch Justice Souter brush his teeth.

Things that Shouldn't Talk

Bunnies, for starters, though everyone says the new Fox show, Greg the Bunny (Wednesday, 9:30 pm), is, well, funny. Greg the bunny is a puppet that lives in a world made up of humans and puppets. The puppets are an oppressed minority in this world and call themselves "fabricated Americans." If the major love of my early 20s, Bob, had not left me for someone with whom he used to watch Alf, I might be more excited about this one.

Babies shouldn't talk either. Especially in the movies and on TV. Though Look Who's Talking (1 and 2) were both hits, this CBS sitcom, Baby Bob (Monday, 8:30 pm), is likely to bomb. As an aside, the persistence of talking babies on TV may reflect the real desire of parents everywhere to know what their infants are thinking. On the other hand, if they are anything like Ozzy Osbourne's children, most of what they have to say is unrepeatable.

Andy Richter really shouldn't talk. Everyone says that Andy Richter Controls the Universe (FOX, Tuesday, 8:30 pm) is genuinely funny, but I'm tired of TV stories about fat white boys with boring jobs who long to be cool, hold down a meaningful job and have regular sex with a beautiful girlfriend. Try a sitcom about a fat chick in the same situation and I'll shut up.

Friends Don't Let Friends Star in Wannabe Friends Vehicles

NBC's Leap of Faith (Thursday, 8:30 pm) actually is all right: girl ditches boring fiance for great sex in first episode and has an actual black friend. On the other hand, the curse of the post-Friends time slot may be more powerful than the curse of Seinfeld. Speaking of which, I find NBC's Watching Ellie (Tuesday, 8:30 pm) starring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, the former "Elaine" from Seinfeld, to be, well, unwatchable. They really set themselves up for that one. The cheekily titled As If (Tuesday, 9 pm) brings its mostly British cast to the U.S. audience via UPN. The Random Years (Tuesday, 9:30 pm), also from UPN, features 20-somethings in New York eating a lot of cereal in a dingy loft. I'd rather watch Friends.

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