In “Fishin’ For Business,” a typical episode of Duck Dynasty, Duck Commander honcho Willie Robertson and his brother Jase introduce another chapter of their rivalry with a bit of dialogue that sounds like a pitch straight out of a sitcom writers’ room: “Let’s have a competition: Who can make the most selling fish?” In this contest, the upwardly mobile Willie assumes the role of the know-nothing city slicker; he has the fanciest boat, with all the latest gizmos, but he can’t catch a fish to save his life. Jase, on the other hand, sets out in a filthy rust bucket with only his trusty rod and a pail of bait, but because he’s a good ol’ country boy intimately familiar with every fishin’ hole on the river, he comes back with a hundred pounds of catfish. Since he doesn’t have his brother’s business sense, however, he can’t sell any of it.
In the end, the brothers team up, joining Willie’s financial smarts with Jase’s fishing know-how to make a killing at the local catfish restaurant. Meanwhile, in the B-plot, the wimmenfolk have hatched a harebrained scheme to develop a line of plus-sized aprons for large-breasted ladies. None of them can sew worth a lick, however, and it looks like the plan is doomed, until kooky ol’ Uncle Si saves the day with his military-honed tailoring skills. A lesson has been learned all around, one that Willie helpfully states in voiceover before the end credits roll: Everyone has useful attributes, and teamwork and compromise are good things.
It’s a classic sitcom structure, but technically, Duck Dynasty isn’t a sitcom: It’s A&E’s most popular entry in the burgeoning “redneck reality’ genre. A few years ago, it would have been considered niche programming, along with all the cheaply made cooking, travel, and home-improvement shows cluttering the alphabet soup of basic-cable channels. Now, it’s one of the highest-rated shows on television, regularly topping all its Wednesday-night competition in the key 18-to-49 demographic. Girls and Community may get all the buzz, but Duck Dynasty and its redneck-reality brethren (including Moonshiners, Swamp People, and the much-derided Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) are drawing the eyeballs—and an audience the networks had all but abandoned.
TV series based around rural, working-class characters were once a staple of the Big Three, long before the audience fragmentation that came along with cable and the rise of the Internet. The primetime schedule of the late ’60s was a virtual rube tube, with such shows as Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hee-Haw—the cornpone version of Laugh-In—offering rural viewers cracked reflections of themselves. Then came the “rural purge” of the early ’70s, when the networks cancelled these now-irrelevant-seeming shows en masse in favor of socially relevant programming more in tune with the turbulent times, like All In The Family and M*A*S*H. Television being a cyclical business, rural-themed programming would gradually return to the airwaves, particularly once Georgia peanut farmer Jimmy Carter ended up in the White House. (One short-lived Southern-fried sitcom of the era was even called Carter Country.)
Not all of these shows were sitcoms. The Dukes Of Hazzard was essentially a live-action redneck cartoon, with good-ol’-boy moonshiners Bo and Luke Duke (assisted by crusty Uncle Jesse and sexy cousin Daisy) evading their own personal Wile E. Coyote, the cigar-chomping Boss Hogg (aided and abetted by dimwitted lawmen Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane and Deputy Enos Strate). This was nobody’s idea of a penetrating social study of rural Southern subcultures, but the characters were colorful, the car chases were fun, and for a kid living in the boonies, Dukes made country life look pretty exciting.
But where are the Mayberries and Hazzards on the contemporary primetime schedule? Not on the major networks, where scripted programming tends toward urban procedurals and workplace sitcoms. Expand the search to include cable originals, and the situation doesn’t improve much, although Justified, with its crime-ridden Kentucky hollers, sometimes plays like Dukes’ wiser, wittier cousin.
But while the networks have no room for rural, working-class Southerners (or rural working-class anyone, really), cable outlets like Discovery, TLC, and History are more than happy to pick up the slack—if not with scripted programming, than with reality shows. And these outlets are now reaping the rewards, with ratings that are strong not only in terms of overall viewers, but in the coveted target demographic of adults aged 18-34. Some of these programs aim no higher than pure “let’s laugh at the white trash” hixploitation, most notably Honey Boo Boo, which treats the unsophisticated Georgia family at its center like a freak-show exhibit. (Come see the Obese Farting Rubes!) But it would be a mistake to lump all these series in that same category.
Duck Dynasty essentially functions as a workplace sitcom, although it’s a workplace that would never show up on the NBC Thursday-night lineup. It’s a manufactured reality show, with contrived setups for each episode (“Let’s build a redneck water park out at the lake!”) and one-liners that often come off as scripted and rehearsed. The Robertsons, the family that founded the Duck Commander empire, are portrayed as Beverly hillbillies who never left their Louisiana home. But as a 21st-century variation on the rural sitcoms of yesteryear, it isn’t bad; most of the Robertsons are equipped with a quick, dry wit, and real-life characters like Uncle Si (a Vietnam vet still spinning tall tales about his time in the bush) and the exquisitely deadpan Jase are a tad more nuanced than the cornpone stereotypes who populated Green Acres and the like.
For rural, working-class viewers, these shows offer the opportunity to see “people like us” on television. But even those of us who spend our days in cubicles and our leisure time plugged into the web can see the appeal of shows like Moonshiners and Swamp People: They offer a window into a captivating world of colorful characters, rugged individualism, strong family ties, and off-the-grid lifestyles. Moonshiners, in particular, scratches that old Dukes Of Hazzard itch, with its backwoods outlaws operating hidden whiskey stills and evading the watchful eye of law enforcement. The Discovery series may not be much more “real” than Dukes—the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control insists that the moonshining depicted on the show is dramatized, although the producers have kept mum about that—but like Duck Dynasty, it’s found some engaging characters to build its manufactured drama around. The pairing of overall-clad Tim, who wants to go legit, and sleepy-eyed, beer-guzzling Tickle, who thinks that will take all the fun out of it, is particularly entertaining.
While the rural-themed programming of days gone by tended to depict the small Southern town as a bucolic haven for good-hearted folk, redneck reality is more apt to acknowledge the social and economic ills of the subcultures it depicts. These shows are sanitized for the protection of viewers with blue-state sensibilities; when they occur at all, political discussions tend to center on generalized platitudes about freedom and family, rather than specifics that might turn off half the potential audience. It’s also hard not to notice that most of these shows are as lily-white as Mayberry, R.F.D.—an unfortunate byproduct of depicting insular communities on the tube. (It’s probably safe to assume that a demographic sample of gator-hunters in Louisiana wouldn’t resemble a Benetton ad.)
Might the success of these shows prompt a rube-tube renaissance on the major networks? It doesn’t seem likely. As Todd VanDerWerff pointed out in last fall’s For Our Consideration piece on the lack of blue-collar sitcoms on the networks, writers tend to write what they know. There aren’t likely to be many ex-gator-hunters on Hollywood writing staffs, which is another reason the reality genre has been the vehicle for the rural resurgence: You don’t have to be from the swamp to bring cameras into the swamp and see what happens (and in many cases, shape what happens). Even the few blue-collar sitcoms that have made it onto the networks in recent years have either urban (2 Broke Girls) or suburban (The Middle) settings. It’s always possible that the networks will take note of Duck Dynasty’s success and get back to the country, but a glance at the list of fall pilots under consideration suggests it won’t be anytime soon.
Still, the ratings are a pretty clear indication that redneck reality is filling a need that isn’t being met elsewhere. Duck Dynasty and Moonshiners may never get a fraction of the media attention afforded to Girls or Mad Men, but their popularity shouldn’t be any big mystery. Anyone who ever daydreamed about outrunning Boss Hogg in the General Lee or hanging out at the fishin’ hole with Andy and Opie could agree with that.