‘Till Duck Do Us Part”: That was the title of the most-talked-about television show in America last week. Was it a revamped version of Looney Tunes? An offering from Animal Planet? No. It was the season opener of America’s favorite TV family show, featuring the women of the extended Robertson clan organizing a formal wedding for the heads of the family, Phil and Miss Kay, who 49 years earlier had only been able to afford a justice of the peace.
Not exactly the kind of plot TV executives would expect to draw a record audience. But that’s what happened last Wednesday night on A&E. The backwoods reality show Duck Dynasty drew 11.8 million viewers, which happens to be the most ever for a nonfiction telecast on cable television.
It’s also 8 million more viewers than the season-five premiere of Mad Men.
It’s nearly 6 million more than this year’s premiere of Breaking Bad.
And it’s almost 3 million more than the finale of The Good Wife.
How did this show about a bunch of bearded men dressed in camo who spend some of their time making high-quality duck calls, and the rest goofing off, beat those shows that media critics swoon over endlessly?
It’s simple. Duck Dynasty didn’t spring from the head of some screenwriter in New York or Los Angeles. It isn’t dark or cynical or ironic. It’s earthy and optimistic and light-hearted and funny, like the Robertson family itself. Like America itself.
No screenwriter could imagine the Robertsons. No screenwriter could dream up a family as funny as this one, doing what it does for a living, and carrying on the way it carries on. A family as fun-loving and soulful. A family as dedicated to the notion of family.
That each show ends around the family dinner table with three generations sitting side by side, with the meal blessed by the family patriarch, makes Duck Dynasty different from anything else on TV.
“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken,” the great Oscar Wilde once advised artists.
The Robertsons are, if anything, themselves.
But they are also something else: They’re fiercely countercultural. If Woodstock was a rebellion against everything Americans had cherished in the 1950s, Duck Dynasty is the rebellion against the rebellion. A rebellion against the culture of divorce, rudeness, and the sexualization of everything. Duck Dynasty dares to be . . . wholesome.
For those of you who’ve been living under a rock, or in a swamp without access to a satellite signal, Duck Dynasty follows the daily doings of the Robertson family of West Monroe, La., and their company, Duck Commander, which produces some of the best hand-made duck calls for hunters in the country.
But this ain’t a hunting show — though the episode where Uncle Si brings a big poodle to do some duck hunting with the boys may have been one of the funniest 30 minutes of television last year.
It’s more like The Cosby Show meets ZZ Top meets Undercover Boss meets Hee Haw.
Duck Dynasty is a brilliant brew of commerce, family life, the great outdoors, and the greatest American sport of them all — mutual heckling. And all led by Phil, his three crazy sons (the fourth son, Alan, is a pastor and not a member of the family business), and the merry troops that inhabit their lives.
But don’t let those beards fool you. These guys are smart. So are the gals, who are not only beardless but beautiful. Sexy, sassy, and thoroughly modern women, all of them.
And the Robertsons are funny. Very funny. They work together and play together. They taunt and tease one another, call one another stupid and fat and crazy and just plain lazy. And no one ever throws a tantrum. Because they all know the source of that heckling. It’s love. And they all know that if they’re on the receiving end of that heckling this time, next time they’ll be on the giving end.
One A&E executive tried to explain succinctly the success of the show. “The Robertsons represent a lot things we as Americans cherish,” David McKillop, the general manager and executive vice president of the network, told the New York Times. “Self-made wealth, independence, and three generations living together.”
That’s part of the reason Duck Dynasty is pulling in mass audiences. But here’s another: There is not an iota of political correctness in the show. Phil, for instance, is routinely ridiculing his sons for being yuppies and marrying yuppie wives. Do the wives cry foul? Do they stir up a fight? Heck no. They’re all too smart for that. They instead laugh at themselves, and at each other, something Americans used to do with much more regularity.
In one great episode, second son Jase gets a fine from the homeowners’ association in his fancy suburban subdivision for burning leaves and keeping chickens in his yard. Upset that the neighbors are infringing on his rights, he attends the very next HOA meeting to give them a piece of his mind, only to learn that he was in clear violation of the contract he’d signed when he purchased his toney home. The joke was on him. And his family.
In another classic episode, third son Willie — CEO of Duck Commander — gets out of an obligation to attend career day at school by shirking it off on his father, Phil, and his crazy Uncle Si. Phil’s idea of career advice is to show a group of horrified grade-schoolers how to skin a duck. Uncle Si scares the kids to death with his stories from Vietnam. It was hilarious.
The show has been funny from day one, but it took time to find an audience. When it debuted in 2010, it drew only 1.81 million viewers. When it began its second season in October 2011, it drew 3.94 million. The third season averaged 8.4 million viewers, more than double the number in season two. Not only is the show old-fashioned, but it grew the old-fashioned way as well. Not by fancy marketing or by sensational plot lines, but by word of mouth. By customer referral.
Another thing that separates this family reality show from so many others is the fact that the Robertsons are a group of people most Americans wouldn’t mind hanging out with. Like many country folks, they really know how to have fun. And without the aid of gadgets, movies, or other commercially made entertainment. The Robertsons manufacture their own entertainment.
Can you imagine spending a long weekend in the country with the Kardashians?
Or an hour with the real housewives of Atlanta, New York City, New Jersey, Orange County, Miami, or Beverly Hills?
And there is one last aspect to Duck Dynasty that has made it such a big hit: It shows Christian men and women living ordinary lives that are informed by their faith — informed by their commitment to God, and each other. These are not the dour, joyless Christians you so often see on the screen, and too often run into in life. They don’t go around quoting Scripture or heaping judgment on others; they’re too busy having fun and living good lives.
At the end of last Wednesday’s show, the clan pulled off a beautiful surprise wedding for Phil and his lovely bride, Miss Kay. They were celebrating their 49th anniversary. It was an informal scene, near a creek on the family property.
Phil and Kay’s oldest son, the pastor — who happens to be beardless, earning him the title of black sheep of the family — had this to say to the clan just moments before his parents renewed their vows: “We’ve hauled a lot of fish up this bank, we’ve played baseball under these trees, Si shot a few squirrels out of them as well, we all got baptized in the creek back here behind me, and now here we are, almost 50 years after you two got together, having the wedding you never had, with four generations of Robertsons looking on. I’d say this is the perfect spot.”
When was the last time you saw a scene like that on TV? With words like that from a pastor to his extended family?
Then came the exchange of vows, words no TV writer could have come up with. They were direct and simple and beautiful. First up was Miss Kay, who told her husband this: “From the time I was 14 years old, I loved you. We’ve been through some good times and some hard times. I loved you when we were poor and you were not so nice. Now, you are really nice. And kind. And all I can say about that is, and I’m not going anywhere. I will love you forever.”
Jep, the youngest of their boys, started to cry. He was instantly heckled by his brothers. “Keep it together,” Jase taunted him, the women laughing. And crying.
Then Phil took his turn: “Let’s see, Miss Kay, we’ve been running together since we were teenagers. The old blue Chevrolet, Si in the back. You have cooked me many a good meal. From your loins came four healthy, godly men. You are my best friend and I love you dearly, and I’m going to be with you for the long haul, till they put me in the ground. Good?”
“Perfect,” Miss Kay replied. Perfect indeed.
Alan, the beardless pastor brother, then closed things out with a prayer: “Father, we thank you for this night, and we thank you for the blessing of being in this place. Thank you for Mom and Dad and their commitment to one another, and all the years they’ve served you. Father, we pray for continued blessings on our family. Amen.”
It is a prayer millions of Americans understand.
For millions upon millions of TV viewers, Duck Dynasty is the kind of funny, smart, wholesome, all-American programming we’ve been praying for.
— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network, which syndicates Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.