The current TV landscape features a slew of backwoods reality shows: “Buckwild” on MTV, “Hillybilly Handfishin” on Animal Planet, “Swamp People” on the History Channel, “Redneck Island” and “Bayou Millionaires,” both on CMT. Of the group, TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”—with its tiny wannabe beauty queen and her rowdy Southern brood set against a backdrop of mud-diving and pig-foot-eating—has gotten the most mainstream cultural attention, generating a debate about “hixploitation” and the queasy appeal of hillbilly reality TV. But “Duck Dynasty” remains the genre’s ratings success and breakout star, in part because it is so slyly self-aware.
The “Honey Boo Boo” gang knows that they are crafting a brand, of course, and they’re good at it; they embrace country bumpkin stereotypes so fully (urging viewers to “redneck-ognize,” for instance) that it is hard not to be charmed by their total comfort with themselves. But the men of “Duck Dynasty” are savvier—after all, the show is partly a kind of promotional reel for the thriving business at its center.
We have long seen reality shows that bank on the spectacle of wealth: “My Super Sweet 16,” “The Hills,” “Real Housewives,” “The Kardashians.” The opulence is a kind of joke, all that pornographic materialism, the surgically smoothed faces and the gaudy mansions. We’re supposed to shake our heads at the extravagance and feel reassured of our own relative groundedness. “Duck Dynasty,” though, makes watching other people’s prosperity feel like a less bitter pill. It stars the Robertsons, the family behind the multi-million-dollar company Duck Commander, which built its fortune manufacturing duck calls in the swampy wilds of Louisiana. Affluence is more palatable, of course, when it comes in down-market packaging, muddied and unshaven.
“DUCK DYNASTY” MAKES BEING A MAN SEEM AS STRAIGHTFORWARD AS A PUNCH TO THE FACE.
Like “The Osbornes” and “The Kardashians,” “Duck Dynasty” is less reality show than sitcom: for all its kooky antics, it persistently reinforces traditional family values. Each episode ends with a tidy scene in which the Robertsons say a prayer around the dinner table, grateful for the roasted duck and for each other. All the Robertson men are happily married to confoundingly sane and good-looking women. Producer Scott Gurney has called the show “’Modern Family’ in camo.” Duck Commander CEO Willie Robertson is the most responsible of the bunch, perpetually wrangling his less industrious relatives, who want only to hunt and fish. The workplace and the wilderness are dueling existential forces. “Everyone here is doing nothing, and I can’t fire you because you’re kin to me!” Willie bellows. He plays the straight man in an ensemble that includes his wisecracking brother Jase, their wacky old uncle Si, and their flinty, no-nonsense father, Phil.
Willie Robertson described the show as “guided reality” in a recent interview, sounding a bit like a producer instead of a star. The characters are mugging and winking every step of the way, preempting our own judgments. Jase’s deadpan asides are a highlight of the show. “When you hear CEO, you think chief executive officer. But when I look at Willie I think that if you saw him walking down the road…