Mr. TV: Ozzy and ER

This week I have two subjects I want to discuss: The Osbournes and NBC’s ER. And no, marble-mouthed Ozzy and family are not being rolled into ER for the final episode of the long-running medical drama, although maybe they could use an update on their “meds.”

The Osbourne foursome—Ozzy, Sharon, Jack and Kelly—are back in prime time, albeit temporarily, in a series of variety specials on Fox called The Osbournes: Reloaded, which launches out of American Idol this Tuesday. ER signs off after 15 seasons on Thursday.

If you have watched Fox recently, I’m sure you have seen the inane promos of clan Osbourne headlining their own variety show. That’s right, six years after they rocketed to fame via their self-titled MTV docu-reality series, they are back in a new format featuring skits, impersonations, audience interaction and candid camera style pranks.

Just when you thought they were gone forever, or at least on the D-list, the Osbournes are back at their craft, spitting out obscenities and creating mayhem as they take part in groundbreaking TV like working undercover in a fast food restaurant. And who could resist the “Littlest Osbourne” segment in which young tykes imitate Ozzy and Sharon as they carpet bomb viewers with four-letter words Isn’t that just adorable?

As a special “treat,” you’ll even see spoiled brat Kelly belt out a song or two. Stock up on earplugs and barf bags for this sonic abuse. “The Osbournes are back, and television will never be the same again,” according to the promo. That’s putting it mildly, I think.

Fox’s decision to air only one episode of The Osbournes: Reloaded now (trimmed to 40 minutes, following an 80-minute edition of American Idol) and schedule the remaining installments sporadically means that this show is just plain garbage. I have not seen variety look this bad since The Brady Bunch Hour in 1977 (remember the “fake” Jan?), The Chuck Barris Rah Rah Show in 1978 (no, I am not kidding) and the bizarre Pink Lady in 1980. What worked in reality will certainly not work in variety and I imagine most curiosity seekers will scramble for the remote midway through Tuesday’s telecast.

Two nights later, we finally say goodbye to veteran medical drama ER, which has been milking its long-awaited departure all season with guest appearances by former cast members Anthony Edwards, Sherry Stringfield, Eriq La Salle, Noah Wyle, Juliana Margulies, Laura Innes, Alex Kingston, Paul McCrane and Academy Award winner George Clooney, whose recent return was oddly not promoted. Let’s be honest: ER was a tremendous sensation, finishing first overall in the ratings from 1995-97 and 1998-99, cracking the top 10 for a full decade, and winning an impressive 22 Emmy Awards (including Outstanding Drama Series in 1996). It was once the epitome of a “must see” TV drama.

When ER launched, I was working at NBC in research and I remember anxiously awaiting the ratings to arrive each Friday as we all hooted and hollered over its rising performance. My manager at the time (don’t get me started) once even brought in a bottle of champagne to toast its success. Those were exciting days. But as the years progressed, the ratings dipped, the stories lost their luster, and the next generation of actors could not hold a candle to the original group. Even so, NBC stood by aging ER like a deer in headlights, watching the once-plum Thursday 10 p.m. move into CBS’ corner. And that was five years ago.

Like Law & Order (which will likely be picked up for a 20th season) or Frasier and The West Wing before it, NBC does not know how to let a show die with some dignity, which is one of the reasons the network’s in trouble. More often then not, and ER is the latest example, it sucks the energy out of series viewers love, but eventually tire of because they’ve been on for a generation.

Let’s just hope the final scene of the once-great ER will not conclude with a young autistic boy shaking a snow globe with a small image of the hospital in it. That’s, of course, how the classic St. Elsewhere ended (perhaps, at this point Lost too), which after six seasons still had more stories to tell. Fifteen seasons later, it’s clear ER should have checked out years sooner.   

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