In one episode of the A&E reality show Duck Dynasty, which is about a family-run business in West Monroe, La., that manufactures duck calls, CEO Willie Robertson installs cameras at the plant to monitor the workers. The employees, most of whom happen to be his brothers and an uncle, rebel against the surveillance, saying they will not be constantly watched.
Of course, that’s the essence of reality TV: subjecting oneself to being constantly watched. And in the case of Duck Dynasty, lots of people are watching. Last week, the hour-long season-four premiere brought in 11.8 million viewers, the largest number ever for a nonfiction cable show.
Most viewers probably agree with Willie’s tongue-in-cheek assessment of his time spent monitoring his family as they work hard at not working: “I sit here watching these idiots, and yet I can’t look away.”
Duck Dynasty follows the Robertson family, starting with brothers Willie, Jase, and Jep, who operate Duck Commander, and their father, Phil, who founded the company. And then there’s Phil’s brother, the irrepressible and unpredictable Si Robertson. The show also features regular appearances by some of the men’s wives and children. The men all sport long beards, the type of facial hair sported by the Southern rock band ZZ Top, which provides the show’s theme song.
When asked about the authenticity of the story lines in the show, the Robertson men talk about “guided reality.” The show strikes a balance between genuineness and playing for the camera. Viewers have the sense that the show is a natural extension of what these characters are like in real life — and that there is something real and rich in these lives.
Because the characters are entertaining, especially in their interactions with one another, and because they manage to take certain things seriously without taking themselves seriously, they are a refreshing counter to much of what passes for reality on reality TV.
Much of reality TV is about people who have no sense of anything important or enduring beyond the satisfaction of their own petty desires or the exaltation of their own egos. They have nothing but themselves to take seriously. While it is impossible to imagine the Kardashians without their celebrity, it is easy to imagine the Robertson family, in the absence of cameras, going about their lives quite happily (“Happy, happy, happy,” as patriarch Phil likes to say).
In the 1960s, Phil gave up his last year of athletic eligibility at Louisiana Tech, where he started at quarterback ahead of future NFL Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, because it interfered with duck-hunting season. Reflecting on his decision to forgo an opportunity to play professional football, Phil says: “The choice came down to me in the woods hunting ducks, or getting in a situation — a lifestyle — whereby large, violent men are paid huge sums of money to do one thing, and that’s stomp me in the dirt. I said, You know, I just think it would be less stressful to go after ducks.” Phil ended up making millions from Duck Commander.
The plot of this season’s opening episode revolves around a plan, launched by the brothers’ wives, to give Phil and his wife, Kay, a surprise anniversary present: the proper wedding they never had in their justice-of-the-peace nuptials nearly half a century earlier. To set up for the outdoor wedding on family property, they need Phil and Kay out of the way, so they ask Si to provide a diversion.
Si’s closest analogue in TV history might be the Seinfeld character Kramer, the “hipster doofus,” if you can imagine Kramer having been raised as a duck hunter in the South. Si claims that he is the master of distraction. He boasts, “If you look away, I’ll take everything you got, down to your underwear, and leave you standing there naked.” But he nearly botches the whole plot before it has begun when, in his opening phone call to Phil and Kay, he blurts out that he’s planning a surprise. Covering for himself, he argues that he had to tell them he had a surprise planned, or they’d suspect there was going to be a surprise.
The next morning Si arrives, late, to pick up Phil and Kay. His excuse is that he was running low on gas. Then he says they can’t use his car because he didn’t stop for gas. Why not? Because he didn’t want to be late. Phil dubs Si the “logic vacuum.” Si then takes them down his own version of memory lane. He pulls up in front of a dilapidated, abandoned house, explaining that this was Debbie Gibson’s house, the place where the couple first met. Although he doesn’t recognize the building, Phil does recall Debbie Gibson as someone “who sang a record once.”
Meanwhile, with intermittent success, the women enlist their husbands to prepare an outdoor church for the wedding. Moving the pews, the boys keep taking breaks to rest; one complains, “I can’t feel my hands.” When one of the women asks for a volunteer, Willie warns, “Never volunteer for anything when you don’t know what it is. Didn’t you see The Hunger Games?”
Eventually, though, everything comes together, and, in a ceremony both humble and reverent, Phil and Kay renew their vows before God, nature, and their extended family.
Duck Dynasty appeals to audiences for several reasons. The characters are quite entertaining: The deadpan humor is on target more often than not, and sometimes the show is laugh-out-loud funny. And there is the deeper appeal of the show’s humble celebration of family and faith. As one brother comments, “Only three things matter: God, family, ducks.”
As a society, we are well down the road toward the desacralization of marriage, which is in danger of becoming nothing more than a contractual arrangement covered by a veneer of romantic affection. How far we’ve fallen is evident from the popularity of shows such as The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, which apparently represent contemporary romantic courtship. But, the prospect of celebrity and financial gain aside, what self-respecting man or woman would continue to date someone who was simultaneously making out with three or four other prospects?
Most episodes of Duck Dynasty end with the entire family, three generations, gathered around a dinner table as Phil offers grace, most often thanking God for the gifts of place, family, and food — some of the latter having been gathered (that is, hunted) from what one character calls “God’s grocery store.”
These are real men, but they are not super macho men, as some superficial reviews have claimed. How macho, after all, can duck hunters be?
Much of the humor in the show comes from situations in which big, burly guys end up afraid or wimpy. Some of them are unable, for example, to remain outdoors camping all night on the eve of duck season because of a lack of good food and the threat of mosquitoes. In the season premiere, Jep is reduced to blubbering while watching his parents renew their vows, as his brother Jase scolds, “Keep it together.”
The female characters temper the masculinity of the show. The women of Duck Dynasty are not the crude, physically unseemly women of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, nor are they the “real housewives” of New Jersey or Atlanta, whose lives are a soul-sapping cocktail, equal parts vanity and misery. They are attractive, articulate, and tough, with manifest affection for their husbands and children.
When the men need instruction, sometimes the women intervene directly; other times they let them figure things out on their own. In one episode, Willie, acting on the protective impulses of a father, takes his daughter shopping for a less sexy dress than the one she was planning to wear to an event. Claiming he has his “finger on the pulse of the fashion industry,” he rejects one dress after another, observing of one, “There’s no top; it’s halfway done. We need full coverage.” As the unacceptable dresses pile up on the floor, Willie asks his daughter, “Do you know what a burka is?”
Coming to the rescue of his flustered nephew, Si (who has spent his time in the clothing store flirting with and dismembering a mannequin and trying on outfits that make him look like a “Cajun pimp”) tells Willie, “You’re overbearing. Your girl has turned into a beautiful young woman before your eyes, and you’re not handling it very well.”
The episode ends the way the classic American sitcom used to end, with the family members reaffirming their love for one another, forgiving minor transgressions, and imparting modest lessons to one another and the viewers alike. That’s more than a minuscule achievement in the world of American popular culture.
— Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published last year by Baylor University Press.