The men of A&E’s wildly popular reality show “Duck Dynasty” catch squirrels with their bare hands and skin frogs with a single flick of the wrist. They say things like “My idea of happiness is killin’ things” and “That is how you trap a lizard, boys.” They sit with their legs wide apart and their barrel chests puffed out. They project a primal, frontier masculinity—the rifles slung over shoulders, the endless supply of camouflage pants, the craggy faces swallowed by beard. And for some reason, people are watching. About 8.6 million viewers tuned in to the season premiere of “Duck Dynasty" last month, beating out both “American Idol” and “Modern Family." It was the biggest audience for a reality show episode on cable this year.
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.
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 you’d be looking for a can to put a dollar or in or a sign saying the end is near,” he says in the pilot, and it is hard not to agree.
Most reality shows get worse as they get more self-aware: "Jersey Shore" turned insufferable when the Situation’s ego was suddenly buoyed by the realization of his own genuine, if fleeting, celebrity. But for the men of “Duck Dynasty,” their clear delight in putting on a show is key to this show’s unique fusion of genres: sitcom, reality TV, hunting show, with an occasional dash of Cajun-style cooking program. Si’s crackpot commentary is T-shirt ready. (“One time in Vietnam, I saw a grizzly bear ridin’ a scooter.”) Nuggets of sound, homespun wisdom like “Sometimes being a hero is as simple as being there for your family” are mixed with goofy yokel lines like “I don’t like meat from the grocery store; it makes me nervous.”
“Duck Dynasty” is mesmerizing in part because it makes being a man, with all its attendant ridiculousness, seem as straightforward as a punch to the face. You kill things. You eat them. You take care of your family. And you grow a beard. Gender roles on reality shows tend to be stark and extreme. MTV’s “Jackass,” which premiered in 2000, was masculinity as performance: the male body emphatically on display, all the half-naked stunts and exuberant masochism. And on shows like “Real World” and “Jersey Shore,” the contrast between male and female cast members has long been amplified for dramatic effect. Men are physical and carnivorous and loud; women are hypersexualized and materialistic and loud.
So it is almost refreshing that on “Duck Dynasty,” the gender roles are so caricatured that they seem less like exaggeration for the purposes of generating drama—sexual, emotional, or otherwise—than a shtick intended to lampoon the genre itself. “Don’t marry some yuppie girl,” Phil tells his young grandson. “If she knows how to cook and she loves to eat bullfrogs, now there’s a woman. She doesn’t have to be a pretty girl. If she looks a little homely that’s alright.” “Yoga? That’s what men call stretching,” Willie tells his wife, who has invited him to her exercise class. These men are also presenting themselves in contrast to another demographic: the yuppies, or the coddled urban dwellers. “Duck Season eve to us is kind of like Christmas eve to city folk,” Jase says in one episode. The comedy of the clash between country folk and city folk goes back, of course, to the “Beverly Hillbillies” of the ’60s, where the hayseed Clampetts, spilling out of their rickety jalopy, rolled into Beverly Hills. But the humor of “Duck Dynasty” is very different from the humor of “Hillbillies”; the jokes don’t come from fish-out-of-water scenarios (i.e., the Clampetts pull their guns on the gardeners at their new mansion, thinking they are intruders) but rather from seeing these men so fully in their element, using their wealth in mysterious backcountry ways, arranging a photo shoot for their hunting dog or buying an RV with their enormous faces plastered on the side, beards blazing.
In fact, it sometimes feels like those beards are the show’s true protagonists: Phil’s ragged two-tone whiskers, Si’s wispy Rip-Van-Winkle coif, Willie’s impressive thicket of neck hair. The beards are characters in and of themselves, treated more like pets than facial ornamentation, stroked and fluffed and trotted out as a particular kind of status symbol. “Use your beard for something more than a decoration,” Jase tells Willie, who has opted to sleep in the RV instead of outside during a camping trip. “I was under the impression by looking at the beard that you’re proud of being a man.” Pictures of all the Robertson men, clean-shaven and scrubbed in a pre-“Duck Dynasty” life, recently leaked online, raising questions about just how much that lush facial hair is merely a prop. If “Duck Dynasty” is a show about family and work and duck hunting, it is also a show about beards: that is, about the art of wearing and performing identity on reality TV, which may be the Robertsons’ greatest skill.