Like many people who think they know a lot about television, I was almost completely unacquainted with the reality TV series “Duck Dynasty” until the premiere of its fourth season. With more than 11.8 million viewers, this episode, seemingly out of nowhere, became the most-watched nonfiction cable telecast in history. This was twice as many viewers as watched the vastly more-anticipated season premiere of “Breaking Bad.”
“Duck Dynasty” chronicles the exploits of the Robertsons, an extended Louisiana family who run a successful business called Duck Commander. The company manufactures duck calls (the gizmos that hunters use to lure mallards to their doom during duck hunting season), and all the men in the family sport massive Z.Z. Top-style beards and advocate for their down-home traditions. In other words, it sounds like yet another poor-white-trash exploitation series, in the tradition of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”
But having watched a few episodes now, it’s clear that if the series is exploitative, it’s not the Robinsons who are being exploited. They may act dumb, but they are rich, savvy, shrewd businessmen; they are rednecks in the same way that the late Senator Sam Ervin was a “simple country lawyer.”
There is a hayseed tradition in American culture going back at least to Mark Twain, carrying through the Ma and Pa Kettle movies, “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres” TV series, and the “Li’l Abner” comics. This tradition portrays rural America as an alien world inhabited by moonshining, interbreeding, corncob-pipe-smoking rubes. These country folk are often eccentric and backward, but sometimes they are the ones manipulating their unsuspecting city cousins. “Duck Dynasty” falls in the latter category.
You don’t feel guilty about watching “Duck Dynasty,” as you sometimes do with those other reality TV shows in which the participants are prodded to act out their worst impulses. The appeal of “Duck Dynasty” is that the Robertsons are a happy, highly functional, mutigenerational family. There’s an irascible but loving patriarch; his slightly ditzy but loving wife; their sons, who now run the duck call business; their wives and daughters; and an offbeat but lovable uncle. Unlike the Waltons, they don’t live under the same roof, but they are close enough to be very involved in each other’s lives. And each episode ends with the entire clan sitting around the dinner table, praying for God’s blessings in Jesus’ name.
According to Nielsen, “Duck Dynasty” is the rare reality show with almost identical ratings for men and women (the season premiere had a 4.07 rating for men and a 4.06 rating for women). Along racial lines, it has a high viewership among whites (a 5.0 rating) and low ratings for blacks and Hispanics (1.0 and 0.97 respectively). This is not particularly surprising, given that it’s essentially a show about Southern good old boys.
There’s always a question of how much reality there is in a reality TV show, but “Duck Dynasty” clearly pushes the boundaries. It’s much closer to an old-fashioned sitcom than to a documentary. Off-camera, the family actually might be colorful and amusing, but no group of people could consistently get up to the escapades that the Robertsons do. It strains credulity to think that the producers aren’t steering them into plots or feeding them lines.
There is, for example, an episode in which Willie Robertson, the president of the family business and possibly the smartest member of the family, whimsically buys a winery sight unseen. Although he’s a college graduate, he claims to know the names of only two varietals: cabernet sauvignon and merlot. And although he’s a successful businessman, he refuses to call on the expertise of professional winemakers; instead he summons his company’s top staff, who proceed to muck around like 10-year-olds in a playground. They buy grapes from the supermarket and nearly ruin the grape-crushing machinery before climbing into the vat and squeezing out the juice with their bare feet. It’s like something out of I Love Lucy.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s all amusing. In fact “Duck Dynasty” is funnier than many scripted comedies. It’s “clean” fun, too: no gratuitous sex, bleeped out swearing or nasty conflicts. It’s one of those shows that parents and kids can watch together without mutual mortification. Best of all from the producers’ point of view, the ratings are highest among those highly desirable 18- to 49-year-olds.
The supposed advantage of cable is that it can be edgy, which too often translates into sexual situations and rough language. And yet some of the highest-rated shows on cable (I’m thinking also of History’s “The Bible”) advance traditional family values. You’d think this lesson would eventually sink in. Maybe if “Duck Dynasty” continues to generate these kinds of ratings, there will suddenly be a glut of eccentric but loving TV families.