I don't know about you, but I often find reality exhausting: the lack of structure or resolution, the dearth of funny one-liners and exultant act-outs. It really gets to me, the way next-door neighbors always turn out to be creepy when they ought to be wacky,1 the way children talk like children instead of like bitter, graying MFA dropouts. In reality, we waste our time on tedious things like brushing our teeth, paying tolls, and saying good-bye before hanging up the phone. In reality, apartments are small, the people aren't pretty enough, and they rarely know just what to say. And don't get me started on the editing! Reality is where we spend all of our money and derive 100 percent of our unhappiness. It's a fact. You can look it up.
So the appeal of reality television has always been more or less lost on me. At the end of a long day of petty disappointments and diminishing breakfast jokes, I prefer to lose myself in the sweet escape of fiction, not the vérité trap of other people's addictions, egos, or suspiciously fascinating storage lockers. Call me a snob or just call me lucky, but I've never seen a rose ceremony, never trucked an ice road, and still have my doubts about just what, exactly, a Honey Boo Boo entails.2 I like my television to be like my high school athletic accomplishments: made up. It drives me crazy when hyper-fans tear into Breaking Bad for perceived errors like a meth fiend jonesing for a hit of that Heisenberg blue. I want fiction with daring train robberies and gonzo assassination plots that somehow ding with the clarity of a dinner bell. I want stories that are unbound from the frustrations and limitations of normal life. I care about Joan Holloway's 1968 dinner conversation, not whether it occurred at a restaurant that hadn't been invented yet.3 To suspend my disbelief is no chore. I want to imagine, not relate.
But occasionally, something quacks so loudly it can no longer be ignored — no matter how much I long to do just that. The fourth season of A&E's Duck Dynasty premiered last week with an audience of close to 12 million people. To put these numbers in perspective, the highest-rated episodes of Breaking Bad and Mad Men combined would still only equal about 75 percent of that gaudy total. If Duck Dynasty were on ABC, it would outrate Grey's Anatomy and most episodes of Modern Family. If Duck Dynasty were on NBC, it would not only be the most watched show on that network's air, I'd put good money on either Donald or Daffy replacing the peacock as the official network mascot within the month. The point is, ratings like this are outrageous in 2013, even before you pause to consider the show that's earning them.
About that: Duck Dynasty, much to my chagrin, isn't a soapy investigation into the dark side of Uncle Scrooge's fortune and family.4 Instead, it's a half-hour series built around the Robertson family of northern Louisiana, a merry, tightly knit clan whose fortune was built on the feathery backs of waterfowl. The dead ones, anyway: Patriarch Phil Robertson transitioned from a college football career spent ahead of Terry Bradshaw on the Louisiana Tech depth chart to an outdoorsy life devoted to hunting ducks. The signature calls he invented — all of which look like an elegant cross between a one-hitter and a bottle of nail polish — led to a thriving business called Duck Commander. Eventually it also led to this series, in which Phil, his ever-patient wife, Miss Kay, and their assembled friends, family, and coworkers (most happen to be all three) are chronicled with the same breathless rapture usually reserved for Real Housewives, towheaded octuplets, or other assorted Hollywood flotsam.
So, then, a reality show about a rural clan that enjoys hunting, trapping, and growing great shaggy beards the size and density of which would make even Rick Rubin uncomfortable? Look, I'm a gun-fearing city dweller. I know how to order duck in an overpriced bistro, not shoot one. It goes without saying that Duck Dynasty is as close to my reality as King's Landing. For that reason alone I wasn't necessarily averse to strapping on the camouflage and wading in. But then my editors forced me and I had no choice but to shut my beak and splash down.
Despite my limited research, it quickly became clear that every episode of Duck Dynasty follows a similar pattern. The younger Robertsons — CEO Willie (stars 'n' stripes headband), deadpan Jase (no headband), and sensitive Jep (sunglasses?) — suggest some sort of mischief (competitive turkey cooking, competitive doughnut eating) that briefly backfires (backfiring usually means keeping them from fishing and/or napping) before everything ends in smiles and group prayer. While it took me awhile to tell them apart,5 I've come to think of the Robertson brothers as the mullets of people: Donner Party on the outside, all business within. There's an appealing, Leslie Knope–Ron Swanson dynamic to the relationship between the responsible, underappreciated Willie and the dryly delinquent Jase. But the brotherly joking comes easy because, despite dressing like the Oak Ridge Boys on a survivalist retreat, the Robertsons were rich before the cameras arrived.6 The lightness of their existence has been earned, not inherited, imbuing every silly thing they do with a backwoods good cheer utterly lacking in the curdled trust fund swamp of, say, the Kardashians.
The breakout star of the show is Uncle Si, Phil's grizzled, 65-year-old younger brother. Spitting non sequiturs and malapropisms like sunflowers seeds (I'm partial to him knowing the family land like "the back of my ham") and constantly sipping from a bottomless cup of unsweetened tea, Si is one of those genuine, utterly sui generis characters that these sorts of shows pray to discover and then live to exploit. If Si were 40 years younger and perhaps considered cultivating a personal style other than "retired Ted Kaczynski" he'd be Duck Dynasty's Snooki. Instead, he's merely the most reliable comic relief, always puttering around in the background, buying fireworks and massage chairs and bungling the simplest of tasks. Pleasant as it is to watch him ramble, it's hard not to consider it a missed opportunity.
In reality — real reality — there's something fascinating and tough about Silas Robertson's life story, the way he shipped off to Vietnam while his older brother was enrolled in college, the fact that his ever-present plastic cup of tea was sent to him by his late mother while he was dodging bullets on the front lines. But reality shows are a demanding business. They insist on the prompt and efficient transformation of real people into characters; bumpy tics are quickly flattened and off-brand sadness is paved over, all in the name of comedy and commerce. The real Silas Robertson has a wife and children, but since they declined to participate in the show, he'll have to settle for playing the dopey third wheel to Phil and Kay and, oh yeah, a novelty T-shirt for his trouble.7
The record-breaking season premiere, "Till Duck Do Us Part," was the first episode of Duck Dynasty I experienced, and at first I found its hokey setups exhausting. A wayward game of Battleship between Willie and Jep leads to the admission that their parents, Phil and Miss Kay, never actually had a wedding. With their 47th anniversary looming, the couple's daughters-in-law then scheme to throw them a surprise wedding. Inevitably, the men prefer goofing off to renting tuxes, inevitably Uncle Si botches his one job of distracting Phil and Kay, and, inevitably, everything works out in the end. There's a patented rhythm to the current generation of reality shows, one forged in the drunken Jacuzzi factories of Bunim/Murray Productions, and Duck Dynasty, despite its unique setting, follows it to a tee. Conversations come loaded with foreshadowing (says Phil to Miss Kay early on: "You're my best buddy") and seem to get where they're headed awfully quickly. Meaningful moments and tender admissions paddle right up to the camera as if lured there with bread crumbs. I'm not saying shows like Duck Dynasty are scripted,8 but their remarkably smooth story lines are certainly molded, shaped, and, to mix bird metaphors, goosed into being. Miss Kay may have been genuinely surprised by the impromptu ceremony, but her makeup looked like it had been planned for days.
Even so, there is real art to this kind of artifice. And while the conceit of the surprise wedding felt phony and staged, right down to the beautiful altar, conveniently built in hours by Mountain Man, a monosyllabic neighbor who would be dismissed as implausible by a Jeff Foxworthy joke book, the emotions it revealed were remarkably affecting and true. The Robertsons may look imposing, but there's a gentleness to them.9 (Phil is a man of few words, but a surprising number of them seem to be "happy.") The vows he recited to his wife were stilted, yes, but also heartfelt, and the words she spoke to him — that she'd been with him when he wasn't nice and was still with him now that he's "real nice" (a reference to something the show usually avoids, Phil's "lost years" in the '70s spent tending bar and sampling too much of the product) — hinted at the mostly untapped possibility of "reality TV": the casual demonstration of the weight and gift of shared history. Duck Dynasty doesn't have to establish emotional relationships like a scripted show, doesn't have to grind the gears of exposition to make the pieces move in tandem. I expected artificial sweetener and was surprised to find real sugar.
But if I go out of my way to avoid reality TV — even well-made reality TV like this — why did Duck Dynasty feel so familiar? It certainly wasn't due to any overlap with my own existence.10 Eventually, I figured it out: Duck Dynasty may have only a tangential relationship to reality, but it is absolutely TV. Not the TV often discussed in the local spots where I order that seared magret breast or, indeed, on this very website. But the sort of old-fashioned TV that has been mostly forgotten in the rush to embrace younger and younger viewers with increasingly sophisticated — and expensive — taste.
And so the hoariness of the gender roles — the Robertson wives are always meddling with their men, slapping them on the wrists like naughty, hairy schoolboys while throwing up their own hands in mock exasperation — is part of a rich vein of Mother Knows Best stretching back to The Honeymooners. And from there? Bang, zoom, to the moon, or at least to CBS. Duck Dynasty's unpreachy but insistent message of Christianity and family values and its refusal to equate the simple life with being simple-minded is equally anachronistic. It's a delicate line that, out of every recent prestige series, only Friday Night Lights was ever able to tiptoe across.
Cool-chasing executives may keep their hands on the creative dimmer, constantly making things darker in an attempt to be seen. But the truth is, no one, not the shock merchants at Fox or the boundary-pushers at HBO, has ever been able to tamper with television's universal secret sauce: We like watching people who like each other; we're only able to truly invest in a show that is invested in the relationships between its characters; and all successful series are, in essence, about family.11 It's funny and a little bit sad to see the traditional broadcasters continually trip over themselves in search of what Americans might be into next. Especially when A&E, a former non-starter of a network, managed to figure out a cheaper way to provide exactly what great swaths of the country never stopped wanting in the first place.