‘Till Duck Do Us Part”: That was the title of the most-talked-about television show in America last week. Was it a revamped version of Looney Tunes? An offering from Animal Planet? No. It was the season opener of America’s favorite TV family show, featuring the women of the extended Robertson clan organizing a formal wedding for the heads of the family, Phil and Miss Kay, who 49 years earlier had only been able to afford a justice of the peace.
Not exactly the kind of plot TV executives would expect to draw a record audience. But that’s what happened last Wednesday night on A&E. The backwoods reality show Duck Dynasty drew 11.8 million viewers, which happens to be the most ever for a nonfiction telecast on cable television.
It’s also 8 million more viewers than the season-five premiere of Mad Men.
It’s nearly 6 million more than this year’s premiere of Breaking Bad.
And it’s almost 3 million more than the finale of The Good Wife.
How did this show about a bunch of bearded men dressed in camo who spend some of their time making high-quality duck calls, and the rest goofing off, beat those shows that media critics swoon over endlessly?
It’s simple. Duck Dynasty didn’t spring from the head of some screenwriter in New York or Los Angeles. It isn’t dark or cynical or ironic. It’s earthy and optimistic and light-hearted and funny, like the Robertson family itself. Like America itself.
No screenwriter could imagine the Robertsons. No screenwriter could dream up a family as funny as this one, doing what it does for a living, and carrying on the way it carries on. A family as fun-loving and soulful. A family as dedicated to the notion of family.
That each show ends around the family dinner table with three generations sitting side by side, with the meal blessed by the family patriarch, makes Duck Dynasty different from anything else on TV.
“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken,” the great Oscar Wilde once advised artists.
The Robertsons are, if anything, themselves.
But they are also something else: They’re fiercely countercultural. If Woodstock was a rebellion against everything Americans had cherished in the 1950s, Duck Dynasty is the rebellion against the rebellion. A rebellion against the culture of divorce, rudeness, and the sexualization of everything. Duck Dynasty dares to be . . . wholesome.
For those of you who’ve been living under a rock, or in a swamp without access to a satellite signal, Duck Dynasty follows the daily doings of the Robertson family of West Monroe, La., and their company, Duck Commander, which produces some of the best hand-made duck calls for hunters in the country.
But this ain’t a hunting show — though the episode where Uncle Si brings a big poodle to do some duck hunting with the boys may have been one of the funniest 30 minutes of television last year.
It’s more like The Cosby Show meets ZZ Top meets Undercover Boss meets Hee Haw.
Duck Dynasty is a brilliant brew of commerce, family life, the great outdoors, and the greatest American sport of them all — mutual heckling. And all led by Phil, his three crazy sons (the fourth son, Alan, is a pastor and not a member of the family business), and the merry troops that inhabit their lives.
But don’t let those beards fool you. These guys are smart. So are the gals, who are not only beardless but beautiful. Sexy, sassy, and thoroughly modern women, all of them.
And the Robertsons are funny. Very funny. They work together and play together. They taunt and tease one another, call one another stupid and fat and crazy and just plain lazy. And no one ever throws a tantrum. Because they all know the source of that heckling. It’s love. And they all know that if they’re on the receiving end of that heckling this time, next time they’ll be on the giving end.
One A&E executive tried to explain succinctly the success of the show. “The Robertsons represent a lot things we as Americans cherish,” David McKillop, the general manager and executive vice president of the network, told the New York Times. “Self-made wealth, independence, and three generations living together.”
That’s part of the reason Duck Dynasty is pulling in mass audiences. But here’s another: There is not an iota of political correctness in the show. Phil, for instance, is routinely ridiculing his sons for being yuppies and marrying yuppie wives. Do the wives cry foul? Do they stir up a fight? Heck no. They’re all too smart for that. They instead laugh at themselves, and at each other, something Americans used to do with much more regularity.