Duck Dynasty, a reality TV show about self-proclaimed rednecks from Louisiana who made a fortune selling duck calls and yet occasionally still kill and eat squirrels for dinner, drew 11.8 million viewers (including the Innes family) to the airing of the premiere episode of its fourth season on A&E two weeks ago. That is the largest audience on cable ever for a non-fiction series, and a much larger audience than for Jersey Shore, the closest Northeastern equivalent. The mystery is … why? Other shows feature strange people who dwell in rural settings (Swamp’d, Call of the Wildman).
Well, for one thing, it’s funny. Willie is the straight man, the bearded boss with the bandana trying to get a serious day’s work out of his mostly blood-related crew. Uncle Si is the clown. You never know what will come out of his mouth, and his malapropisms are classic comedy fare.
It’s also endearing. Phil and Kay are the love story, especially touching as they have been married 47 years. (The centerpiece of the season 4 premiere was the renewing of their wedding vows.) They are all people you would be happy to know, and yet they are all real people living in a real community.
Americans like people who are different, and the Robertsons are certainly that. But we also like people we can relate to. (The show is broadcast in Europe, but there it is something like watching Meerkat Manor on Animal Planet.) The program is not about ducks; it’s about the dynasty. It’s about family, and we all have family, though not always the family life we wish we had. Andy Greenwald observed in his review, “We like watching people who like each other; we’re only able to truly invest in a show that is invested in the relationships between its characters; and all successful series are, in essence, about family.”
The family in America is in crisis. Families have scattered lives. They don’t eat together, they rarely even see each other, and when they are together they live in electronic isolation of one another. Relationships are strained. Even intact families can be like orphanages. Unwed motherhood and the irresponsible young manhood that corresponds to it have lost their restraining stigmas. Internet pornography is eroding even the psychological possibility of family. No fault divorce laws have made broken families commonplace. Four out of five divorces are unilateral.
We wish we could have what the Robertsons have. But it’s not their wealth; it’s their happy, wholesome family life. (Phil’s signature phrase is, “Happy, happy, happy.”) And their happiness is related to the quality of their family life. They have their conflicts (the heart of any good storyline). But these are always resolved, usually through a lesson in humility—what Christians know as dying to self—and a recognition that the people God has sewn into our lives are more important than our agendas and our pride.
Their family life is attractive in part because it seems attainable. The Robertsons are open enough about their human foibles that whatever they are doing right we imagine we could do the same. And by grace we can. The message of the show is that ultimately what binds family together, and thus what is most important in life, is what God gives freely in Christ to those who humbly give themselves and their families to Him.
Duck Dynasty is also politically important, because in the midst of American family decline, and with it America’s decline, the Lord has brought one family—a rough cut yet godly Christian family—to the nation’s adoring attention. They say their priorities are faith, family, then ducks. Through that extended family God is showing us what we need most as a nation, as a culture, and, of course, in our own lives—ducks aside.