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Duck Dynasty - A&E

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.

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There’s only one Christmas card on our refrigerator.  It’s a standard photo of two kids and a generic season’s greetings message. Scrawled in the white space is a single sentence: “I’m pretty sure this is NOT the year.”   This is not as cryptic as it sounds. My wife and I understood immediately: our holiday correspondent thought the Red Sox wouldn’t win the World Series in 2013.  Because if you only have room for one thought on a yearly greeting, what else would you mention but the fate of the Red Sox?

What is it about the Red Sox – or any sports team – that makes their success seem so important?  Damned if I can figure it out.  All I know is that half of the ten happiest, most thrilling, or most memorable moments of my life concern the Red Sox.

Which is – by any objective measure – insane!  The success or failures of a few over-conditioned college dropouts should logically be no concern of mine, regardless of what uniform they’re wearing. And yet sometimes I can’t fall asleep because a struck baseball has landed one foot on the wrong side of a wall.  I have spent more time worrying about some 24-year-old kid’s shoulder than I have about my own – even when I couldn’t lift my arm above my head!   I have stood in line for a half hour to get the signature of a meathead I don’t even respect personally just because he was able to throw a spheroid 95 miles an hour.

Obviously there’s something deep within the human psyche that demands a broader purpose or sense of group identity.  We see this in politics, which is no longer about voting your pocketbook or economic interests but about making a statement about what kind of person you are.  At election time people get INFLAMED because one candidate has promised to raise or lower the tax rate on a particular group by three or four percentage points even though the real-world impact will be minimal.  Or they are FURIOUS because someone has made a symbolic gesture they don’t like about gun control, global warming or birth control. In fact, the more meaningless the gesture (flag pins, anyone?) the more it drives group solidarity.

At least in sports, we don’t pretend that whoever wins the championship will materially change our lives.  We more or less understand that the players don’t love us back and will leave if another team offers them a contract worth a thousand dollars more, but we still root for them as if they were intimate members of our family.

Having said all that, I find myself in the curious position of not caring quite as much about this Red Sox team this year.  Oh, I care A LOT, and have watched many many games, but it no longer feels like life and death.  Beginning in 2003 (the year the Sox SHOULD have won it all) I went on an eight-year bender in which every twist and turn with the Red Sox felt like the most important thing in the world.  I checked www.bostondirtdogs.com twice day, subscribed to Die Hard magazine and scheduled my life around big games. That all came crashing to an end in September 2011, when the Red Sox experienced the biggest collapse in the history of baseball, forced out manager Terry Francona, lost general manager Theo Epstein and then revealed that a number of the Red Sox pitchers had been chowing down fried chicken and beer WHILE THE GAMES WERE GOING ON.

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(Probably a photo-shopped image, but who knows for sure?)

In response to that fiasco, the Sox then hired Bobby Valentine as manager, an unmitigated disaster from the start, who led the team to an ignominious last place finish in 2012.  And to make matters worse, Francona wrote a “tell-all” book that laid bare the dysfunction in the Red Sox management and the selfishness of the players.   By the time I’d finished that book my eight-year fever had broken.  I just didn’t care anymore.  Didn’t follow the off-season trades. Didn’t follow Spring Training.  Didn’t want anything to do with them.

I wasn’t really paying attention when they overhauled the team, signing a bunch of players I’d barely heard of: Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Johnny Gomes, Steven Drew, Mike Carp.  The Sox had cleared out some over-priced malcontents and picked up cheaper players with more “character.”  Now, it’s one of the bigger debates in sports: does a player’s “intangibles” contribute to the team’s success, intangibles being defined as being selfless during the games, displaying leadership in the clubhouse and supporting his teammates.  The connection between character and success is something sportswriters talk about – something we all WISH were true.  We all want a fair world where the good guys get ahead, but in sports, raw talent and ego usually prevail.

The 2013 Red Sox may be one of those teams where character actually does matter.  Everyone says the new players are unselfish and they are winning, so maybe there’s something to this.  By rights, I should be ecstatic about this team.  They have the best record in the league and are winning some thrilling come-from-behind victories.  But I’m only very happy; I’m not over-the-moon.

And I’m not alone.  Last summer we went on vacation in Massachusetts and after dinner one night we walked through the tourist-clogged downtown, fully expecting to see the Red Sox game playing on the TVs in the bars and restaurants.  But as we peered in the doors to see what the score was we discovered that a Patriots pre-season game has displaced the Sox.  In restaurant after restaurant the Patriots had pride of place.  It was almost as if the town had decided by osmosis that a meaningless football game was more compelling than a pennant race game.

There’s also been a lot of teeth-gnashing in the Boston sports media over the lack of attendance at Fenway park for even the most compelling games.  For nine years in a row every game was sold out and now there are 3-4,000 empty seats a game.  What’s the problem.? Here are some suggestions:

The Broken Heart Syndrome.  This is a real thing.  When someone crushes your heart, tears it out, stomps on it and feeds it to the neighbor’s dog, it’s hard to turn around and love them the next day, even if they ask for forgiveness.  This new team of good buys is paying the price for the terrible behavior of the last two years.

Fatigue.  As noted, it’s hard to maintain an infatuation for years and years.  Eventually some of the intensity will burn out.  Of course we’ve lost a lot of the fair-weather fans – the ones who hopped on board after 2004 and made the Sox a fad.  And good riddance. But even those of us who are lifetime fans go through periods of ups and down and I feel like I am emotionally exhausted by the last decade.

Player anonymity.  Although we root for the team, we also root for the individual players, in whom we become emotionally invested. We remember them as rookies, we know their family situations, we have cheered their success. Because of the significant turnover on the 2013 team there are fewer fan favorites to root for.  There’s scrappy super-loyal Dustin Pedroia; Jon Lester who had cancer and pitched a no-hitter; Clay Buchholz who married a supermodel and pitched a no-hitter.  You could add David “Big Papi” Ortiz to the list, but he’s kind of worn out his welcome with all his griping.  It hasn’t helped that in a show of solidarity many of the players have grown beards, which makes it harder to tell apart.  Seriously, who is Mike Napoli and who is Johnny Gomes?

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(Seriously, who is who in this photo?)

No Yankee Challenge.  I never thought I would say this, but I miss the Yankees, as obnoxious, entitled, smarmy and privileged as they and their fans are.  I mean, I really hate the Yankees and everything they represent.  Their season has been the pathetic mess I urgently wished for, and it was glorious to embarrass them in Yankee Stadium earlier this month.  But as we cruise toward the post-season it seems much less important without the Yankees to root against.  When the Sox and Yankees play in meaningful games it seems like Armageddon – sometimes there’s an ecstatic result and sometimes I want to kill myself.  But I never feel quite as alive as when they are at each other’s throats.

Finally, I’m not sure what role the Boston Marathon bombing plays in the way we feel about the Red Sox this year.  The bombing took place about a mile from Fenway Park just after the conclusion of the Sox’ Patriots Day game.  The most significant moment of healing wasn’t the memorial service attended by the President but at the first Sox game after the bombing. Through the luck of the schedule, the next game was the following Saturday, after the bombers had been killed or captured. All of Boston tuned in to watch the pre-game ceremonies, including this tribute film:

So maybe the Red Sox are a team of destiny, destined to bring joy to Boston after the sadness of the Marathon.  It didn’t work out for the Yankees that way after September 11, but that will be the dominant narrative if the Sox make it all the way.  You can count on them including some bombing victims in the Duck Boat parade.

Bottom line?  I still love the Red Sox.  I’m a bit afraid of committing myself emotionally, even though they done everything to deserve it this year.  I’m looking forward to the play-offs with a bit of trepidation but hope they get hot at the right time.  My life is measured out in Red Sox milestones and I’d rather remember this stage of my life as the time they won their third World Series trophy rather than as the time they finished in last place.

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The August 25 episode of “The Newsroom” offered a line of dialogue that amused the small fraternity of geeks who think about media measurement.  Sam Watterson, playing the news division president at the highly fictionalized Atlantis Cable News, gleefully tells Jeff Daniels, the new anchor, that the “fast nationals” for the previous night’s show reported a whopping 5.8 million viewers.  He goes on to say, “That’s going to double when they add Live Plus Same Day and Live Plus Seven.”

Let’s deconstruct that sentence: “Fast Nationals” is the Nielsen term for the stream ratings for the previous night’s national broadcasts.  “Live plus same day” and “Live Plus Seven” are the follow-up ratings that are delivered once additional viewing from DVRs  is included (i.e., one rating includes timeshifted viewing through the day of the original broadcast and other includes viewing through seven days later.)

What’s funny about this comment, though, is the notion that the ratings for a news show would ever double over the course of a week.  A major axiom of media research is that because news (and sports) content is stale as soon as it’s broadcast, news shows only gets a very small bump from timeshifted viewing.  Shows that manage to double their ratings from DVR viewing are almost always scripted programs with very devoted audiences.

It’s probably unfair to single out one line of dialogue from a script in which practically every plotline and scene is farfetched, but if you’re going to use arcane language that 99% of the audience won’t understand, it might as well be accurate.  And when you have a TV show about a TV show you expect the details to be right.

It’s possible the producers of “The Newsroom” sit around talking about Live Plus Seven and that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin thought that news executives had the same conversations. He probably wanted to sound insidery and add verisimilitude to the dialogue, but he outsmarted himself by not understanding that entertainment and news ratings are different. It makes you wonder what else on the show is cockeyed.

Which raises a question: Why can’t TV get the details right?   Even on something that TV should know a lot about, like TV ratings?

I’m not just talking about the eye-rolling aspects of TV programs, like the enormous New York City apartments that sitcom characters always occupy or the many beautiful female characters who fall in love with unattractive guys.  I’m not even talking about the many liberties that TV writers take in depicting the way cops, doctors, lawyers and U.S. presidents do their jobs. I’m talking about areas where the writers should know better but don’t seem to care.

Take, for example, Larry David’s recent HBO movie “Clear History.” David plays a marketing genius hired by an electric car company run by Jon Hamm, and the premise of the story is that David quits his job in a huff after Hamm names the new car after his son Howard. He subsequently loses out on a huge stock windfall when the car is a major consumer success and becomes a laughing stock for acting so impetuously. But here’s the thing: the name of a new brand is the single most important marketing decision a company can make. For the CEO to have made that decision unilaterally is a slap in the face to his Chief Marketing Officer.  David’s character HAD to resign under those circumstances; otherwise he couldn’t have kept his self-respect.

OK, so “Clear History” is only a comedy and shouldn’t be held to documentary-like standards of realism.  Still, as the scriptwriter, why couldn’t David have spent ten more minutes thinking up a more convincing explanation of why he quit the company?   (This is a problem that also plagues “Curb Your Enthusiasm” from time to time.  Too many of the situations he gets himself into are just not believable.)

Writers HATE it when nitpickers like me complain that a TV show is “not like real life.” Real life is boring, they say, and people watch TV to escape. Besides the writers are trying to reach a deeper emotional truth.  I understand that they don’t want to bog down a story with unnecessary detail.  And no one is suggesting setting The New Yorker’s fact checkers loose in the writers’ room.  But TV producers could try harder not to break the mood with obvious and avoidable goofs. A little creative license is OK as long as the end result feels real.

It’s not like it can’t be done.  The shows that strived hard for both emotional and technical realism are some of the most highly regarded shows ever.  “NYPD Blue,” “The Shield,” “The Wonder Years,” “Scrubs,” and “Mad Men” all told stories that were sometimes over the top, but the fictional worlds they created were rarely undone by plot details that didn’t make sense.

Or take Larry David’s previous creation, “Seinfeld.”  Although that series spun some tall tales, it never (until the final episode, alas) felt preposterous, forced, or untrue to the essential essence of the characters.  Larry David (and others) should take some lessons from his earlier self.