If reality TV must put families in contrived situations for our amusement, let more of them be like the Robertsons of “Duck Dynasty.”
By SARA SMITH
The Kansas City Star
In its second season, which wrapped up this week, A&E’s long-haired, tightly knit family of unlikely tycoons from West Monroe, La., has broken ratings records on Wednesday nights. The show bested FX’s “American Horror Story,” NBC’s “Chicago Fire” and ABC’s “Nashville.” Plug #duckdynasty into Twitter and feel the power of the duck call.
The show is partially scripted — one Robertson has called it “guided reality” — but ZZ Top beards don’t grow overnight, and they’re not getting shaved off anytime soon, either. The Robertson men have no intention of spending their millions on grooming and wardrobes they wouldn’t enjoy.
Their wives, by the way? Gorgeous.
“Duck Dynasty’s” premise — sit back and enjoy as three generations trash-talk, clean fish and occasionally manufacture duck calls — shows off a lifestyle most of us would find foreign, but that’s where its resemblance to reality TV’s rural train wrecks ends. The Robertsons are funny on purpose, for starters, and being in on the joke makes all the difference.
It’s easy — almost required — to dismiss with a shudder the families on “Hoarders” or “Sister Wives,” whose lifestyles would provoke unpalatable discomfort if they weren’t smothered in a gravy of scornful righteousness.
On “Intervention,” a father counting change to buy his meth-addicted daughter a pack of cigarettes is making such poor decisions that empathy flies out the window.
The History channel continues to flee its cerebral past with shows like “Mudcats,” in which scarred men with ominous nicknames wade into red-silted Oklahoma rivers and battle 50-pound fish for bragging rights.
White rural Southerners pour money down the child-pageant rabbit hole, letting “Toddlers & Tiaras” viewers shake their heads in righteous disgust. Fans of the spinoff “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” have taken their voyeuristic superiority complex to a new level, participating in the abusive exploitation of 7-year-old Alana Thompson, whose escalating public meltdowns are alarming.
It’s really time to leave that little girl alone.
What all these shows have in common is the “look at these freaks we just found” factor. No trips to the carnival are necessary with “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” stashed safely on the DVR. But “Duck Dynasty” breaks that pattern.
When he’s not asking “How can we make Ping-Pong more violent?” Jase, the most handsome, articulate Robertson, loves to explain what being a “redneck” means. (Sometimes it means having a hot doughnut-eating contest; sometimes it means unloading an entire clip into a water moccasin.) “Duck Dynasty” sprinkles the reclaimed pejorative like a trademark throughout its confessionals, like “Jersey Shore” did with “guido.”
It’s the kind of programming that doesn’t sit well with Bill Maher, who recently ranted on his blog, “Who shops at the Hallmark store? Who’s smoking all the meth? Who’s watching ‘Duck Dynasty’ — a reality show about rednecks who make duck calls?”
What Maher has overlooked is the way the Robertsons’ visceral, fun-at-any-price downtime rituals tickle the neck hairs of Camry-prone suburbanites. Mention Uncle Si to one of his many new fans and enthusiastic confessions of marathon-watching pour forth, followed by viewers’ own memories of Grandma’s farm, college hunting trips or plain old fire-setting. Sadie Robertson is hardly the first teenager to bruise her shoulder during a shotgun lesson, and nobody’s ornery brothers should be trusted around samurai swords.
“Duck Dynasty” takes family values seriously, with bonding over mealtimes ending each episode as Willie, CEO of Duck Commander, delivers chicken-fried homilies about the importance of love and loyalty. The show is an unapologetic affirmation of conservative values, with no Norman Lear sneers.
The Robertsons, whose hard-earned wealth has left their hands scarred, are also a devout Church of Christ family who are never filmed pairing their shenanigans with anything stronger than sweet tea.
When 14-year-old Sadie gets a boyfriend, protective chest-thumping ensues until her Uncle Jase steps in as the voice of reason: “Give them first base. If you take away first base, they’ll find another ballpark.”
It’s that style of pragmatic rationality, peeking out from behind the camouflage headbands, that flies in the face of liberal preconceptions about flyover country.
The real joke of “Duck Dynasty” is on those of us who can’t burn leaves in our own yards, who pay for water park tickets instead of making our own slides down by the creek, who’ve never tasted homemade muscadine jelly. Someone’s inferior, all right.
“The more makeup a woman wears, the more she’s trying to hide. Makeup can hide a lot of evil.”
Phil, Robertson family patriarch
“Having your brother as your boss is a bit like dating your cousin — it’s a bit weird.”
Jase, Phil’s son
“Parenting is a constant struggle between making your kid’s life better and ruining your own.”
Willie, Phil’s son
“First it’s pretty tires, then it’s pretty guns. Next thing you know, you’re shaving your beard and wearing capri pants.”
Si, Phil’s brother
Follow Sara Smith on Twitter: SarawatchesKC, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.