It’s the highest-rated cable series not titled The Walking Dead, but you probably aren’t watching it. We’ve already established that the Venn diagram of Duck Dynasty viewers and A.V. Club readers offers little intersection indeed (my previous review of the show drew a grand total of nine comments), but the show is such a phenomenon, we can hardly ignore it. It may pain you to hear it, but when the cable ratings for this week are announced, tonight’s season première will leave the return of Breaking Bad in its dust, fueled by a fraction of the hype. They’re here, they’re bearded, and we better get used to it.
It’s not such a bad show, really. One of the refreshing things about Duck Dynasty is the transparency its cast and crew bring to the proceedings. There are countless reality shows trying to sell themselves on their supposed authenticity, but the members of the Robertson clan don’t bother to pretend the cameras just happened upon them in the midst of another wacky misadventure. In interviews, they cheerfully admit the scenarios are contrived—either exaggerated reenactments of things that have happened or, more likely, hypothetical situations that aren’t entirely outside the realm of possibility. The dialogue is a mix of scripted lines and the Robertsons’ trademark wry observations. It’s less a reality show than a semi-improvised amateur sitcom, sort of a low-rent Curb Your Enthusiasm with bandannas and unruly facial hair.
Tonight’s special one-hour fourth season première opens with Duck Commander CEO Willie Robertson and his brother Jep engaged in a high-stakes game of battleship while their wives banter in the background about the upcoming 48th anniversary of Robertson patriarch Phil’s marriage to matriarch Miss Kay. Since they were wed by a Justice of the Peace, Willie’s wife Korie has a completely spontaneous idea: Why not stage a real wedding for Phil and Miss Kay as an anniversary present, with all the Robertsons pitching in to make it happen?
This is, of course, a time-honored sitcom premise, and the expected brand of shenanigans ensue. Uncle Si, the screwloose Vietnam vet, is assigned to keep Phil and Miss Kay occupied while the rest of the clan assembles a makeshift outdoor chapel on the riverbank behind their house. Si decides to take the couple on an anniversary trip down memory lane, which proves to be a hazardous street for the scatterbrained Si to travel. He first takes them to the place where they first met (“Debbie Gibson’s house,” Si insists, although the only Debbie Gibson Phil remembers is the pop singer), now a dilapidated “crack house.” After being informed that Phil and Miss Kay actually met at a football game, Si takes them to a fireworks stand, which he insists used to sell ice cream. He finally gets it right, however, taking the couple to a tree in the woods where they once carved their initials.
Meanwhile, the other Robertsons clash over the preparations for the wedding. Jase would rather be fishing and eventually escapes to do exactly that. The “black sheep” of the Robertson clan, pastor Alan, is brought in to officiate the ceremony. (Alan, you see, is completely beardless, in flagrant defiance of the Robertson creed.) The incredibly slow-talking Mountain Man volunteers to build the arbor, while Willie constructs some sort of redneck totem pole made of deer antlers and moonshine jars.
It’s all corny as hell, but it works because the Robertsons are genuinely funny people. You can fake a lot of things on television, but you can’t fake that. The exquisitely deadpan Jase and the daffy Si with his hillbilly-zen zingers are the standouts, but even non-family members like the aforementioned Mountain Man and Duck Commander employee Godwin (who is looking forward to the wedding because he enjoys the Chicken Dance) are good for a few laughs. Unlike a lot of redneck reality, Duck Dynasty doesn’t really traffic in hixploitation; the humor emerges from the quirks of the characters, not from a condescending view of rural life.
None of this is to say you should drop all your other viewing plans and make room for Duck Dynasty on your weekly schedule: One episode every once in awhile goes a long way. There’s a “boy’s club” aspect to the show that can be problematic; too often the Robertson wives come off as blonde monoliths standing in the way of the boys goofing off at the fishing hole. But the popularity of the series really isn’t that hard to understand: It’s a family show offering likeable characters and a few laughs, and there’s always been a place in prime time for that.
- The Robertsons just signed a lucrative new deal with A&E (the family members will reportedly be splitting $200,000 an episode), so it doesn't look like this show is going anywhere any time soon.
- Si: “Cheese has no business being on a turkey sandwich.” I’m sure this means something.
- Willie on eldest brother Alan: “That smooth-faced man of God has a black belt in purple nurples.”