Barring divine intervention, I will be one of the millions of viewers tuned into to the A&E network tonight for the Season 4 premiere of Duck Dynasty.
Let me explain why.
My love for the quirky reality show caught me a bit by surprise. I’m a convert to the “Church” of the Robertsons – the family at the heart of the hit show.
I had heard of it, but had never seen it, and didn’t have much interest in seeking it out either. I’m not a huge fan of reality television, and I know that much of it, Duck Dynasty included, is hardly worthy of being labeled “reality.” But I had some friends who were nearly begging me to watch the show. While I resisted for awhile, I finally decided to relent and give the show a chance.
Why? There are two reasons.
First, it’s entertaining. It is predominately a comedy. Much of the humor, I suspect, comes from the show’s clever production: the cut-away interviews with individual cast members and the clearly contrived scenes and story lines are often television gold. Some of it is mildly inappropriate and silly, but most of the hilarity is largely wholesome and stems from the brothers trying to get out of work, or the grandfather trying to teach his grandchildren lessons that they didn’t want to learn.
But the entertainment value isn’t the only reason I’m hooked.
The second, and biggest reason I’ve invested so much time in the runaway hit, is it’s fascinating.
I don’t mean that the content of the show fascinates me per se. I’m not a duck hunter, or a small business owner, or a Louisiana native, or an avid outdoorsman, or an iced tea drinker, or a beard aficionado, or anything like that.
What fascinates me about Duck Dynasty is its success in the modern television and pop culture climate.
For those who haven’t seen it, the show is about the Robertson family and their businesses, Duck Commander and Buck Commander, which make duck and deer calls for hunting, among other things. The company was started by the family patriarch Phil, who invented the revolutionary duck call. Since the founding, Phil has retired and turned the company over to his son Willie, who serves as CEO and boss of two of his other brothers, his uncle, and some family friends.
Most episodes center on some business adventure or problem with the company, but the show is anchored by the family bond and dynamic and their shared Christian faith. The characters, including the fourth brother who is scheduled to make his first appearance in Season 4 and is a preacher, are all seemingly devout Christians. They often talk about their church, their Bible, their faith, and their values. Many times the parents and grandparents can be seen trying to pass those values along to the children, and each and every episode ends with a family prayer.
Ask any of the Robertsons, and they’ll tell you that it’s this emphasis on family and on faith that has helped to propel the show to the top. But in the modern age, that seems so counter-intuitive.
How is it that in a week where the tops of the Billboard and iTunes charts are held by a song laden with sexual innuendos that’s accompanied by a music video filled with frame-after-frame of topless women, a show like Duck Dynasty can (and most likely will) set viewership records when 10:00 PM rolls around tonight?
How can consumers in the same culture devour Robin Thicke’s ode to casual sexual liaisons, and tune in in record numbers to hear Phil, Kay, and the gang’s frequent lectures on the downfalls of premarital sex?
I don’t claim to know all the answers to these sorts of questions, and I suspect some of them would paint disturbing pictures about our often prodigious ability to compartmentalize our morality, but despite its flaws, the show’s success ought to be somewhat encouraging, at least.
It’s good to know that one of the most-watched shows in America is all about family, fun, and, to some extent, faith. It’s good to know that every Wednesday night, millions of people are tuned in as Phil Robertson booms “Y’all bow” before leading his family in prayer. It’s good to know that the millions of young people who have caught Duck Dynasty fever are hearing Jase Robertson’s dating advice of “hands on the hands, lips on the lips, everything else, wait until you get married.” Or Si’s declaration that the only two things he always packs on a trip are his tea glass and his Bible. Or Phil’s interrogation of his granddaughter, making sure that her boyfriend is a “Godly man.”
I can think of plenty of worse things to be watching.
And no, the show isn’t perfect. The theology isn’t always fully sound. The morality isn’t always very deep. The faith-content isn’t all pervasive. The jokes can be occasionally crass. Money is sometimes flaunted. And yes, copious amounts of animals are slaughtered – if that bothers you. But despite all this, there is a positive and substantive message there that, I think unavoidable. Many of their competitors can’t say the same.
An hour before the Duck Dynasty premiere kicks off, ABC will air a repeat of its hit show Modern Family. And E! will do the same with its hit Keeping up with the Kardashians.
How’s that for contrast?
Put in any one of the Robertson’s names into YouTube, even crazy, old Uncle Si, and you will see videos of them preaching and professing their faith. What happens if you search the names of other popular reality or television stars into the popular video website? I strongly recommend against trying this with at least some of the cast members from the shows mentioned above.
It’s possible that the show’s success and loyal viewership stems solely from the show’s humor, and that the Robertsons’ faith and “quaint” values are part of the joke. It’s possible that the Robertsons are not loved, but mocked for their “backwardness.” But I don’t think this is the case.
Have you been to WalMart lately? Seen any Duck Dynasty t-shirts, or Duck Commander gear? Are people buying shirts, hats, and tea glasses to mock themselves? Or is it because they identify with the Robertson men and women, and, to some extent at least, their principles and family values?
Most viewers seem to genuinely like the Robertsons and the family seems to provide a positive and often explicitly Christian witness on primetime, mainstream television. Look hard enough, and there are things not to like. But on the surface, and even in the depths, there’s a lot to like too.
At the end of the day, we believe that culture matters. Why? Because we believe that culture influences opinions. It influences morality. It influences ethics. It influences public policy. Ultimately, it helps shape us as human beings. If you’re young, impressionable, or both, and you’re exposed to something again and again and again, it can have effect.
So what happens when a 16-year old who likes guns and hunting watches Duck Dynasty for its ample “redneck” hijinks, week-in and week-out for four seasons? Or maybe he just watches it for a good laugh and nothing more. Can he just tune out during the moral lectures and faith-sharing? Sure, I suppose. But that family prayer in the last minute of every episode might be the only time he hears prayer all week. Phil and Kay’s admonishments about avoiding pre-marital relations might be the only time he’s heard anything about chastity in a long time, if not ever. Believe me, it’s far from perfect, but in the United States of America on mainstream primetime cable television in the year 2013, it’s more than I could’ve expected. Not more than I can hope for, mind you, but still more than I could’ve expected.
When Season 4 premieres tonight, it will do so with the renewal of patriarch and matriarch Phil and Kay’s wedding vows. When asked about the episode, the show’s star Willie Robertson remarked “In typical Duck Dynasty form, you’re gonna laugh a lot and it’s funny, but by the end, I don’t know if you’ll ever see a better message taught on TV in an hour.”
Hopefully the millions and millions of viewers will be paying attention to more than just the humor.
~ Matt St. John