With their long, bushy beards, the camouflage-wearing, self-described “rednecks” of “Duck Dynasty” look more like a ZZ Top tribute band than reality-TV darlings. But they’re generating the kind of ratings and social media chatter that blow away many of their prime-time counterparts.
“Duck Dynasty” is a warm and amusing saga about the Robertson family of Louisiana. It shattered A&E viewing records when it attracted 8.6 million viewers to its Season 3 opener a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, the show’s Facebook page has more than 4.2 million fans.
How did this happen? Why has a seemingly simple show about humble Southern folks who built their fortune on handmade duck calls resonated with so many people? Let us count the ways:
1. Family comes first
“Duck Dynasty” follows Duck Commander CEO Willie Robertson; his wife, Korie; his parents, Phil and Miss Kay; his brothers Jase and Jep; and Phil’s weird brother, Uncle Si. They aren’t exactly the Waltons, but they’re an affectionate, devout brood that works, plays and prays together.
Never is their familial bond more evident than at the end of each episode, when they gather around the dinner table, hold hands and give thanks.
“I would imagine that has great appeal to a lot of people who watch the show,” says Karen Cox, a history professor at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte and author of “Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture.” “After all, who sits around the table these days?”
2. A down-to-basics simplicity
Amid the nation’s economic downturn, “Duck Dynasty” has touched a nerve with viewers who have become turned off by the gaudy, materialistic shenanigans of the “Real Housewives,” the Kardashians, et al.
“We’ve seen a lot of reality shows in recent years tied to the pursuit of fortune and fame,” says Lily Neumeyer, vice president of Nonfiction and Alternative Programming for A&E. “What viewers have found in ‘Duck Dynasty’ is the flip side of that: A family that has worked hard, provided for itself, lives off the land and doesn’t aspire to something that they’re not. They believe in the real things in life that you take to the grave.”
3. It transcends its genre
On one hand, “Duck Dynasty” is riding the popular wave of so-called Southern-fried “redneck” shows that includes fare such as “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” “Swamp Pawn” and “Buckwild.” Then again, it really belongs in a category all its own.
“With ‘Honey Boo Boo,’ I worry that they’re being set up to look foolish,” Cox says. “They’re being exploited and made fun of. The people on ‘Duck Dynasty’ offer a more positive reflection of the South. They aren’t stupid by any stretch of the imagination. They’re savvy, educated businessmen who are very self-aware. They’re in on the joke.”
4. Endearing characters
“Duck Dynasty” episodes generally have a sitcom structure and, like the best scripted sitcoms, it contains a collection of interesting, diverse personalities.
Willie, for example, is a TV comedy staple — the exasperated boss, forever struggling to prevent his charges from goofing off. His brother Jase is a master of the deadpan wisecrack. Uncle Si is the cantankerous but lovable old coot who spouts his hilarious homespun brand of backwoods philosophy.
Blend them in with Phil, the laid-back patriarch, and the wives who patiently put up with their antics (another sitcom convention), and you have TV magic.
5. G-rated laughs
Susan Farrell, a fan who lives in Walnut Creek, calls “Duck Dynasty” a “modern-day ‘Brady Bunch.’ ” She appreciates the show largely because it’s one that she and her husband and three kids — ages 10 through 15 — can all enjoy.
“There isn’t much on TV anymore than we can all sit down and watch together as a family,” she says. “It has some of the same lessons and values we push in our home. It’s not mean-spirited and full of negativity like so many other reality shows. It doesn’t make you feel like a voyeur who looks down on the characters. You laugh with (the Robertsons), not at them.”
6. A slower pace
For some “Duck Dynasty” fans, the show surely carries a sort of nostalgic vibe, recalling a time when we played in the woods (or outdoors) instead of being chained to our laptops and cellphones and trapped in a deadline frenzy.
“There’s something to be said about not being caught up in the rush-rush of urban life,” says A&E president Robert DeBitetto. “They seem to be a family that has figured out how to live a wonderful kind of alternative life on their own terms. For the masses slaving away in the big cities, there’s something enviable about that.”
7. The setting
Speaking of the big cities, “Duck Dynasty” whisks us away from the overly familiar TV terrain of Los Angeles and New York to present its audience with a much-welcome rustic backdrop.
As Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan recently pointed out, the Louisiana setting gives the show “a kind of freshness — you’re not going to encounter snakes and turtles and shooting ranges on ‘Modern Family.’ “ At the same time, it’s not overly exotic because the backwoods/Southern genre is so popular on cable TV these days.
8. The Robertsons are relatable
OK, so not all of us have full-blown, forest-thick facial hair or spend a lot of time in duck blinds. But we can see parts of ourselves in the quirky quack pack.
“(The show) is connecting market by market, around the country,” DeBitetto says. “It’s as popular on the coasts as it is in the breadbasket. It seems to cut across so many of the things that we tend to think differentiate us.”
Adds Farrell: “On one hand, they look nothing like my family. On the other, they’re very much like my family.”
9. Beards are sexy?
You might think that a show full of shaggy, camo-wearing bird hunters would largely appeal to men, and it does. But check out the fan sites and you’ll find plenty of female devotees, who clearly prefer manly, rugged men over the metrosexuals they so often see on TV.
Says Shelia Garris, a “Duck Dynasty” devotee from Mississippi, “I love men who work hard for a living. Men who get dirty, who work and live off the land. Men who take care of their families. Men who have good family values. Men who are like our dads were or are.”
10. They get us to laugh and smile
When it comes down to it, there’s nothing deep or profound about “Duck Dynasty.” It’s basically a well-produced, expertly edited dose of escapism enjoyed by millions.
“(The Robertsons) are a family that many of us would like to have, or hang out with,” Neumeyer says. “I could rattle off a lot of different reasons the show is a success. But the main reason is it makes people happy.”