Duck Dynasty and the Counterwar for the American Culture

Like most people of good breeding and sophistication, I had to be drug kicking and screaming in front of the television to watch Duck Dynasty the first time or two…at least when “Cats From Hell” wasn’t giving me new insights into the southern California gay community’s love for small animals.

“Duck Dynasty” began as A&E’s (The Art and Entertainment Network) entry into the Reality TV market three years ago, featuring a family of really ugly white men, with beards like ZZ Top, smoking hot wives and “Father Knows Best” cute kids. Proudly redneck, it turns out they are also well-educated, and the show centers around their running a profitable duck-call business in West Monroe, Louisiana, and their fondness for hunting, fishing, family and redneck fun.

Being Reality TV, you already know where this show was supposed to go when it first aired, for it’s a theme begun by Jerry Springer back in the early 90’s. Springer built a syndicated empire out of making fun, no, scratch that, mocking, hillbilly, stump-trained redneck culture. Springer came from Cincinnati, which if you don’t know, is the only major American city in which blacks do not sit at the bottom of the social and economic scale. Appalachians do.

To get a sense of this prejudice, I worked a few cases in Cincinnati with a female lawyer who taught Women’s Studies at one of the local universities. She was unbending in her belief about the worthlessness of Appalachians, much like East European physicists are about gypsies, and she just couldn’t believe I was one of “them”, for I wore the best of clothes and could speak the King’s English without referring to a crib sheet in my coat pocket. I was a real head-scratcher for her. Then one day she tripped me up on that awful word “far”, as in far truck, not far north, and her world was just as suddenly returned back to its normal orbit. All her truths were made whole once again with that one word. Oh, well.

But while Jerry Springer defined the national stereotype for rural culture, his live audience format soon ran its course.  So, then Reality TV moved in to film rednecks in their native habitat, whether ‘rasslin’ gators in Florida, killing varmints in Kentucky, driving big rigs over ice on the Arctic Circle, or hoarding old newspapers and cat poop in double wides.

Duck Dynasty was supposed to be one of those, only with a twist; for they are rich. And this is perhaps what drew A&E in, for it is generally an artsy-fartsy bunch. This gave them a twist that would separate their audience from the ordinary Deliverance crowd they imagined watched all those other shows.  They selected a family-owned business in Louisiana that had become millionaires by making duck calls and I think the general idea was to show what redneck nouveau riche really looks like up-close, complete with beards, camo limousines and matching camo boots and dinner jackets, and an absolute fetish for killing living, breathing animals. And having fun doing it.

What’s not to see in this equation that will make the average suburban Massachuck or Conneckticuck feel superior?

But on their Road to Emmaus  Hollywood, A&E ran into a big, big, existential detour.

Within a year, Duck Dynasty became more popular than all the other reality TV shows combined. In fact, one of the most-watched shows on cable; more than  NCIS, Castle, even “Cats from Hell”. Soon there were T-shirts, coffee mugs, tea glasses, although I don’t know who owns the franchise and profits from this business.

Money, money, money. So you’d think that A&E would be happy, happy, happy.

But that desire for ratings and wealth has been muted somewhat for it seems the Duck family’s (real name Robertson) rise to national prominence was built on a lot of things that the Hollywood crowd instinctively abhors. Viewers came in droves from unknown quarters to watch it, while the usual crowd of mockers and culture-snobs began to steer away.

You see, the Robertsons are religious.  And worse, common sense religious, the sort that even fence-straddling easterners, yuppies, and suburbanites find appealing. They don’t drink, cuss, smoke or chew.  And possessing the same native-intelligence of Bill Clinton, which makes us all grieve just a little more about what Bill might have become had he just tried to have an honest relationship with God,  Phil Robertson and his family may actually undo much of the American cultural landscape Bill Clinton eroded 20 years ago.

And that’s the point of this story.

For background, the story of Duck Dynasty centers around the life of patriarch Phil Robertson, who at one time was the starting quarterback at Louisiana Tech while Terry Bradshaw backed him up. After college, he fell into drink, drugs and bitter hard times, while married to the “The Way to a Man’s Heart Is Through His Stomach” Miss Kay. He then got saved, and by “saved” I don’t mean Barack Obama’s “evolutionary trek toward God” saved, but knee-walking to the altar saved. (Hillbillies get to see more of this than city folks, so we have some sense of the profoundness of this kind of conversion.)

They have the oldest son, Allan, who is a preacher, beardless and not (to date) part of the show. His other three sons (Jase, Willie and Jep) are all involved in making duck-calls at the factory, the second eldest, Willie, the current CEO, and who stands in as the titular star of the show. Phil, the founder, seems to enjoy retirement and the company of Miss Kay, and regular forays into the woods to fish, shoot ducks, deer, and to get away from or out of Miss Kay’s hair. And of course, as the family sage, he hold seminars in how to clean all those critters. Finally, there’s the gregarious Uncle Si, a Vietnam veteran who drinks tea from a tupperware glass, and who is one of the most naturally funny men I’ve seen since Gabby Hayes. And you can take that to the bank, Jack.

This 30-minute show has evolved into a series of morality plays, sprinkled with humor, all fitting the redneck stereotype, but centering on morality of the most general kind, such as dating, dances, kissing (their children are teenagers), family togetherness, with both patriarch Phil and dad Willie involving themselves with the kids’ romances in ways we haven’t seen since Betty and Bud were still in high school on Father Knows Best. Si and Phil enjoy showing 5th graders how to gut and clean a duck, or whack off the head of 20-pound catfish with a meat cleaver, all with the purpose of showing kids how the food they gobble up each day gets on the table in the first place, and that, before mom and dad and the grocer provides, God provides.

I’ve yet to hear one single political comment.

And at the end of each episode, the family is gathered around a large table loaded with the kill or catch of the day (frog legs a delicacy I still miss), Patriarch Phil begins the meal by saying grace, at which point I’ll turn you over to a conversation Phil is having with his son Willie and the camera about that grace he says at the end of each show. (Watch this, it’s important)

So rejoice, Dear Hearts. (Brother Dave Gardner)

This might be one of the most encouraging 6 minutes of film I’ve seen in a long time. There are many Americans out there who say we can’t get the genie back in the bottle. If we were France I’d agree, but I’ve always taken the opposite point of view, that the American capacity for returning to its roots is still very much in play. Just be patient, as Phil says. It’s a big boat, so it can’t turn on a dime. But the war is on, as Phil also acknowledges, only who would have thought that it would be through television. When was the last time God looked cool on TV? Especially against the sympathies of the editors?

And the idea that our rescue can only come from the top-down is being dispelled here as well. Forget the politicians. As Emerson once said, show a better way (my words, not his) and the world, and it’s politicians, will beat a path to your door. The Robertsons are out to prove that.

Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, you’d think A&E would be rolling in glory, not to mention money, but the crowd they relied on to be watching isn’t. The glorification of dead ducks, let alone God, is more than the average A&E patron can stand, so there is no profit in that kind of person tuning in to mock all the other redneck things these people are doing. That chemistry isn’t working in this laboratory, now run by Phil & Company, not the network.

But another audience is.

There’s a lesson here.

Fattening food is in, cooked up by a lady who radiates charm, good nature and good food. So is kids shooting snakes and birds with a shotgun, even before they are old enough to drive. How will Oregon handle this message over the free airwaves while they are arresting kids who draw pictures of a gun? And what about slow-dancing cheek to cheek, or dresses above the knee? Or unchaperoned car-dates? Wow!


The good news is that the Robertsons are building a core congregation, with people lined up to sponsor them, should A&E go wobbly. I think Hollywood knows it can’t sabotage the show by inserting fake cuss-bleeps, and cutting out Jesus, for now the show can stand on its own. It’s either the money or their belief in the anti-god. Talk about an existential moment. We’ll see.

But in the meantime,

Season Four starts this week. It’s Duck Dynasty on A&E, Jack. Watch it.


Tagged , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *