Zach Dilgard

Phil Robertson and the "Duck Dynasty" gang return post-controversy. (A&E / January 16, 2014)

The season premiere of A&E’s backwoods reality smash, “Duck Dynasty,” ended on an unintentionally prescient note Wednesday night. As the resolutely goofy Uncle Si chortled and cheered over a movie he was watching on television, the show’s patriarch, Phil Robertson, shot him a derisive glance and said: “Si, you do realize that none of this is real?”

He was referring to the movie “Air Bud,” which Si had previously dubbed a film classic, but he might just as well have been talking about his own show, which has lately reaffirmed the highly elastic nature of the term “reality.” 

The headlining Robertson family, which built a fortune first on duck calls and then with “Duck Dynasty,” spent the better part of December locking horns with their network after Phil made controversial comments about gay men and black people during an interview with GQ magazine.  First A&E suspended him. Then, after the many other Robertsons swore they would not continue the show without him, he was reinstated. 

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Meanwhile, as every media moment requires, columns were written, blogs posted, and tweets dispatched.

None of which affected the story lines or tone of the new season, which had been shot before the GQ article appeared.

The first of two back-to-back episodes dealt with such hot-button topics as the aforementioned “Air Bud” controversy (Si thought it a better movie than “Bourne”) the pitfalls of group-texting, the existence of Si-crobes (Si had fallen ill with “the bird flu”) and the love women have for planning fancy parties. In this case the family was celebrating the return of Rebecca, a former exchange student turned honorary Robertson. The following episode revolved around a Si-created treasure hunt and Willie hiring his wife’s cousin as his personal assistant.

“Si, you do realize that none of this is real?” 

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As objectionable as Phil remarks were to many — he opined, among other things, that gay men would not be allowed into heaven and black people were perfectly happy before the civil rights era — they could not have been surprising to anyone who actually watches the show. A Bible-quoting, gun-toting, self-described redneck, Phil unapologetically espouses a more traditional and country way of life, i.e. conservative values.

That “Duck Dynasty” has managed to showcase the warm fuzziness of this ethos—the family dinners, the moments of prayer, the primacy of family—without the shadow of its more divisive aspects is a miracle of canny production and good scripting.

As with the more highfalutin’ “Downton Abbey,”  “Duck Dynasty” is a hit in large part because it allows the audience to bask in the strange and carefully orchestrated beauty of another world without worrying about the darker possibilities of exclusion and entitlement, prejudice and politics.

Because, and this is important, both shows are works of fiction. 

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Yes, the Robertsons are a real extended family of duck-call makers, a version of which appears in “Duck Dynasty.” But the situations depicted there, the parties planned and treasure hunts executed, the discussions, arguments, lawn-mower races and assorted hijinx are preconceived and carefully curated for your entertainment. If it were a true documentary of daily Robertson life, there would certainly be a lot more talk about, say, contract negotiations with A&E and probably a heated discussion about whether it was a good idea for ol’ Phil to give an interview to GQ.

Even the most unapologetic redneck is more complicated than the folks you see on “Duck Dynasty." The Robertsons may relish the limelight but long before them fancy TV people came calling, Phil and his family understood the importance of refining a product and marketing it well, be it duck calls or backwoods family values.

“Dad is nuts sometimes,” says Jep, in Wednesday night's second episode. “He used to expose us to microbes as a kid. You know what came of that?” Dramatic pause. “I got sick a lot.”

Oh that wacky Phil, just chock full of crazy ideas.

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