Let’s just get this out there: I hate mindless reality TV. I hate Keeping up with the Kardashians, The Real World, and all thirty versions of Real Housewives. But even those quality television shows can’t compete with the ubiquitous aura of Duck Dynasty. The show’s season four premier back in August set a cable ratings record, so love it or loathe it, it’s here to stay. Viewers are ecstatic that they’ve got a television show that finally focuses on those tried and true American values:God, guns, and git-r-done!
But here’s the problem: Duck Dynasty is a television show. Television shows aren’t just created on a whim. There are dozens of focus groups and test audiences that come with creating a show’s narrative, along with countless hours of research to determine the sort of market and audience a show has. Somebody at A&E didn’t just decide to create a television show because he thought the Robertsons were some great American family with 1950s gender roles and a tireless work ethic. The show developed because someone saw a completely untapped market, much like the one the Robertsons saw when they invented their signature duck call.
Duck Dynasty is different though, because many of the diehard fans swear by its innocence. You can go to Wal-Mart right now and buy a shirt with quotes from various cast members. There are multiple Uncle Si parody accounts on Twitter that offer a mix of adages and direct Uncle Si quotes. Duck Dynasty’s audience clearly takes what the cast says to heart, and I think that’s unfortunate, not because I think Duck Dynasty is guiding people in the wrong direction, but because at the end of the day, Duck Dynasty is still a reality show. Reality shows are heavily edited. Hours upon hours of filming occurs to fit into one measly 42 minute episode. Producers even offer suggestions for what the cast should say in their one-on-ones. And you know those slogans or catch phrases you’re becoming so familiar with? You can bet those were thought up by producers as well.
You can’t put a lot of stock into the organic, natural composition of a television show if it follows standard plot lines. Like most reality shows—and any other story—Duck Dynasty follows Freytag’s Plot Pyramid. The characters also adhere to classic archetypes for developing a plot or a storyboard. What does that mean? The personalities on the show are not developed by accident; the character portrayal in Duck Dynasty is certainly created. And real lives don’t follow storyboards.
And yet, despite the fabrication, the characters of Duck Dynasty have been embraced by their audience more so than any other reality show, because people want to believe that what they’re seeing is 100% real. They want to believe that the Robertsons are as candid as they appear, that every episode is a replicated day in the life and not a calculated, developed story. But that is not the case, and people need to be aware of that before latching onto Duck Dynasty as the saving grace of thought-to-be outdated mores.
Moreover, the producers of Duck Dynasty seem hellbent on not just lauding the good, old-fashioned Robertson family values, but downright exploiting them. If you’ve never watched the show, every episode ends with the family seated around a dinner table and Willie, in a machismo fashion, says grace. It has been widely circulated throughout the year that producers at A&E asked the Robertsons to tone down on the prayer. While this has since been proven false, such a rumor created a huge uproar among the show’s faithful following.
You’d be crazy to think that A&E would actually want the cast members of Duck Dynasty to stop praying. A&E ran the focus groups, they saw how prayer tested among potential viewers and the target audiences, and they know what it brings to the table. Sad as it may sound, prayer is a plot device used masterfully by A&E. Duck Dynasty is catered to a conservative audience, many of whom are going to be drawn to the prayer aspect. The network wants the prayers because they know it is one reason viewers keep tuning in. It made total sense to make the ending “grace” a staple in every episode; it closes off each story perfectly.
Doesn’t that stir the pot just a little? Doesn’t the most wholesome show we’ve seen of late seem a little more constructed and even, dare we say, manipulative? It does to me. It also perpetuates the issue that the forms of media we take in that shape our worldview are all about ratings. We see peoples’ lives after they’ve been redesigned to fit certain archetypes and we’re fed these archetypes rather than actual people. It’s the equivalent of eating a McDonald’s chicken nugget and thinking it’s free range chicken. The end result might be more artificial than organic.