Reality TV is experiencing something of a “Mad Men” moment, with bandannas and iced tea in place of fedoras and highballs.
Last week, the Season 4 premiere of “Duck Dynasty” drew nearly 12 million viewers, making A&E’s celebration of backwoods Alabama the No. 1 “nonfiction” show on cable and the No. 1 show of the week. Suddenly people who wouldn’t know a Louisiana cedar if their Prius ran into it were chattering about the Robertsons, an extended clan of duck-call magnates who have been entertaining an increasing percentage of the population with their family-centric, redneck ‘n’ proud high jinks.
FOR THE RECORD:
“Duck Dynasty”: In the Aug. 22 Calendar section, an article about “Duck Dynasty” referred to the TV series as “A&E’s celebration of backwoods Alabama.” The show, as mentioned elsewhere in the article, is set in Louisiana.
With the shoulder-length hair and Old Testament beards, the Robertson men catch and eat bullfrogs, race souped-up riding mowers, and take their wives deer hunting. They fight over who blew up the duck blind, pull pranks on their eccentric Uncle Si and do anything to avoid the wrath of their wives.
Amid the preening culture of today’s Golden Age of television, “Duck Dynasty” might seem an actual reality check — critics and cable execs can brag all they want about the growing sophistication of the idiot box, but in the end, people want to watch what they’ve always wanted to watch: A bunch of good ol’ boys trying to weasel out of work so they can go fishin’.
This is true, and not true. “Duck Dynasty” certainly celebrates those things, but like “Mad Men,” it is also a carefully produced, tightly controlled curation of American mythology, in this case a canny mix of red- and blue-state ethos.
The Robertsons occupy a unique but very American cultural sweet spot, in which great wealth coexists with the sort of nationally beloved folksiness last seen on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Like Jed and all his kin, the family of Phil and “Miss Kay” Robertson — four sons (the eldest of which just joined the show), three daughters-in-law and a passel of grandchildren — fulfilled the American dream by hitting it big. Their duck calls, handcrafted still from Louisiana cedar, now fuel an empire called Duck Commander, and the opening of the show hinges on the contrast between the bling and the beards.
But unlike the Clampetts, the Robertsons stayed put, in West Monroe, La., where they continue to hunt, fish and mingle with the locals down at the hardware store.
In sharp contrast to reality’s other beloved rednecks, Honey Boo Boo and company, the Robertsons require neither coupons nor subtitles. They may be backwoods, but they ain’t poor nor are they ignorant, which allows audiences to revel in their homespun ways without any distracting worries about dental insurance or access to education.
Patriarch Phil, who invented the golden duck call, was a star quarterback for Louisiana Tech who turned down an offer from the Washington Redskins because, as he told Sports Illustrated, professional football would have interfered with duck season.
Third son Willie, who expanded Duck Commander and now serves as CEO, has a business degree; he and his wife, Korie, a local who has known Willie since childhood, attended the same college. Willie and his brothers Jase and Jep, may tell the occasional fart joke and prefer play to work, but they are all smart, articulate and equally deft with a well-placed one-liner as a deadpan pause.
Likewise the sins associated, often with alarming fondness, with hillbilly culture — drinking, sloth, prejudice and a propensity for violence (see, please “Hatfields & McCoys”) — are utterly absent here. The Robertsons are prayerful Christians, and any divisive issues that might arise from that simply don’t.
Beyond Phil’s continual celebration of women who know how to cook and carry the Bible, “Duck Dynasty” is resolutely nonpolitical. We have no idea how the Robertsons feel about gay marriage or civil rights or the current presidential administration. Their heated opinions are reserved for pesky neighbors who challenge them to lawn-mower races.
“Duck Dynasty” has cast itself, smartly and now successfully, as a classic mischief-maker tale. The Robertson males are modern-day Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns messing around with snakes and fireworks, endlessly launching adventures, while their wives provide a Greek chorus of slim blonds, lovingly shaking their heads.
Unlike many situational reality shows, “Duck Dynasty” does not rely on acrimony or shock. Animals may be harmed, on screen and off — pop singer Morrissey refused to be on the same show with the Robertsons, calling them animal serial killers — but people are not. To ensure that the message is clear, Willie provides a John-Boy-like voice-over at the end of each show reminding viewers that the only thing that matters is family.
The miracle of the show, and the family, is that they are at once quite sincere about who they are and very much in on their own joke. With their looks, they court assumptions that are valid and then again not — the telltale bulge of Skoal is real, but so is the ability to oversee a successful business or a Martha Stewart- goes-woodsy wedding. The contrivances of “nonfiction” television — Let’s race lawn mowers! Let’s give Miss Kay and Phil the wedding they never had! — are inevitably balanced by moments of surprising honesty.
While renewing her vows in this season’s premiere, Miss Kay said she had loved her husband for years, including those in which “you weren’t very nice.” The pain in her voice — loving and forgiven pain, but pain nonetheless — told a truth about loving someone long that is rare on television.
Too often these days, we are told we must choose between the simple truths and sophistication. “Duck Dynasty” proves you can have both.