Why “Duck Dynasty” soars

January 28, 2013
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And why American TV needs more shows about the intrinsic value of family

It’s funny how families have quietly worked their way back into American media and entertainment, even as Hollywood does its best to block their re-entry. The back door is a new breed of reality blue-collar TV that’s providing a last bastion for those of us who still care about the American family and see it as worthy of respect and protection.

The latest entry into this parallel universe is A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” which follows the exploits of a hill-bogie entrepreneurial family set in rural Louisiana. The Robertson family transformed a passion for duck hunting into a multimillion duck call business, founded by patriarch Phil Robertson.

Phil is pretty easy to underestimate. He plays a seemingly simple, folksy Jed Clampett character. But behind his ZZ-Top-like beard, he’s a pretty smart-witted good old boy, who once started as quarterback in front of NFL Hall of Famer, Terry Bradshaw, when they both played football at Louisiana Tech.

Phil had one hell of an arm. But he grew tired of 300-pound linemen falling atop him. And anyway, football season conflicts with his first love: goose and duck hunting. He turned down an NFL tryout with the Washington Redskins to keep hunting and fishing in the Louisiana swamps. That was before he earned a master’s degree in English and learned how to recite Shakespeare. And then figured out how to make and sell $175 duck calls to build a backwoods empire.

Phil is joined in the cast by his seemingly crazy brother, Si, and his two sons — Willie, the company CEO, and Jase, his brother. They play up the camp at every turn, appearing in the show’s opening credits exiting a Bentley, wearing tuxedos, camouflage, and wading boots, with beards flying in the wind.

They would all be easy to dismiss, this season’s “Honey Boo Boo,” if not for one redeeming quality: the strength of their family and the ease with which they share their lives with one another.

I know. I know. All reality shows are fake. And many of the characters’ shenanigans are no doubt staged. But the Robertsons’ idiosyncrasies and desire to connect with one another as family are much more real than anything I see on network sitcoms.

In fact, this year’s evening TV reads more like soft porn than sitcoms. I would be hard pressed to read aloud in my office the scripts of “Whitney,” “The Mindy Project,” “2 Broke Girls,” “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23,” and “New Girl” without being sued for workplace harassment, what with the constant references to oral sex and three ways.

And of course, there’s always the well-worn plot of the obligatory visits from dysfunctional moms and dads who regularly barge into their kids’ $3,500-a-month, loft-style apartments to prove once again that family is bad and 20-something acquaintances are great. Remarkably, one of these shows is even named after a massage parlor sex act without any protest from any quarters. I will let you figure out the offender.

It’s not like that over on A&E. In a world as real as life can get played out in front of cameras, the Robertsons are clear in their expectation. They demand family members respect one another. They speak the truth in simple, unambivalent terms. Mothers and fathers love and respect one another. Their kids understand the world of work. They all appreciate the land and understand where food and sustenance comes from. They seize the opportunity to make their own way and show gratitude at every turn.

Each episode ends with a Waltons-style John Boy moment, as Willie voices over the family’s weekly shared meal. It’s hard to believe that this kind of cornball works in the world today. But in the alternative, there is no alternative, and hey, there’s something immensely likable about the Robertsons. Something uniquely American. A place that reflects my family life more than the next vagina joke spewed on network TV.

Contrary to Cummings, Kaling, and Deschanel, here family is still vital and vibrant, and celebrated in ways rarely portrayed in American media. “Duck Dynasty” might be campy and cornball. It might be all made up. But in it resides a very real notion of family, caring, and respect, something that would be nice to see more of on American TV.

“My idea of heaven is a mess of mallards, with no game warden in sight.”

-Phil Robertson

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