How 'Duck Dynasty' Became America's Biggest Cable Reality Show

The bearded Robertson clan is the most popular TV family in America

duck dynasty
Karolina Wojtasik/A&E
Phil Robertson and Miss Kay on 'Duck Dynasty'.
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Duck Dynasty sure has charmed its way into America's overalls. We just can't seem to get enough of the hairy Robertson clan from West Monroe, Louisiana – their beards, their bandannas, their zany adventures trying to dynamite the local beaver dam. The fourth season set ratings records when it premiered to nearly 12 million viewers, making it the biggest cable-reality broadcast ever. Duck Dynasty is the most watched series on cable, except for The Walking Dead, which is a weirdly appropriate comparison, since as crazy old Uncle Si once said of his nephews, "They could survive a zombie nuclear apocalypse. They ain't much to eat when it comes to brains."

It's easy to see why Duck Dynasty has gotten so huge – it's an old-school sitcom in reality drag, loaded with folksy charm and cozy family shenanigans. After years of sitcoms that parody documentaries, à la The Office, Modern Family or Parks and Recreation, we've reached a point where the biggest sitcoms are the ones that pretend they really are documentaries. These good ol' boys are doing shtick, but there's something authentically down-home about that. As any Burt Reynolds fan could tell you, shtick is what good ol' boys do.

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So multiply Home Improvement by The Beverly Hillbillies, then subtract any sense of fancy-pants production values, and Duck Dynasty is what you get. Like any American family sitcom, it skillfully balances the awww with the yeee-hawww. And every episode has a stock plot swiped straight from the prime-time archives. The season premiere had the family staging a wedding for an already-married couple – you probably thought you'd never see that one again. During the wedding, eldest son Willie drawls, "I got a massive wedgie. I should've worn underwear." Somewhere, Jeff Foxworthy is crying himself to sleep.

The characters are just like any big nutso TV family. There's the patriarch Phil and the wise mama bear Miss Kay. There's the three man-child sons and their tsk-tsking blond wives. Then there's everybody's favorite, Uncle Si, the hairy Nam vet who seems amiably demented, although his family prefers to describe him as a "logic vacuum." And even though they have a pile of money, they supposedly fluked into it the way Jed Clampett did, with a little bit of backwoods gumption and know-how.

The best gag on Duck Dynasty is how scripted the dialogue is, even by reality-TV standards. Nobody in this family utters a word that sounds the least bit spontaneous. It makes Gene Simmons Family Jewels look like a Second City improv sketch. Witness the absurdly contrived media stunt of Jase, Phil's son, claiming he got thrown out of a posh New York hotel for his beard, saying he was a victim of "facial profiling."

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Yet all that artifice just adds to the homespun warmth, because it's about a family of all-American phonies, just like yours. Duck Dynasty does it better than anyone, because these bearded dudes have been practicing their hustle longer. I mean, nobody makes a fortune selling duck calls unless he's already one slick-ass con man.

As with any reality show, there's the moment where "you can't make this stuff up" turns into "except when you can." But since Americans are so madly in love with myths of our own national innocence, we don't care. And the Robertsons are too smart – not to mention too American – to turn away 12 million suckers waiting to be conned. They know what the nation wants to see in the TV mirror: Uncle Si's sideways toothless grin smiling back at us. We ain't much to eat when it comes to brains, either.

This story is from the September 12th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

 

 

From The Archives Issue 1191: September 12, 2013