'Duck Dynasty' And The Robertson Clan: The Formula For Their Success

Take a bunch of players who are good at improvised comedy, put them in goofy situations and you have the formula for a pleasant dose of escapism.
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duck dynasty

Why is "Duck Dynasty" so damned popular?

It's a question that's no doubt being asked in the executive suites of several networks, whose executives would likely kill a thousand waterfowl to have a show as successful as the Robertson family saga, which returned to A&E Feb. 27 to enormous ratings (8.6 million viewers tuned in for the first airing of the Season 3 premiere).

Will other networks be able to copy the show's success, or at least learn from it? When it comes to the broadcast networks, I highly doubt it. I recently sat down to watch a whole lot of "Duck Dynasty," and I concluded that if ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox tried to replicate its success -- in scripted, semi-scripted or unscripted form -- they'd probably fail. Even other cable networks -- which will no doubt chase "Duck Dynasty" as tenaciously as the Robertsons chase wild animals -- might not be able to replicate the success of this stealthy show, which was barely on anyone's radar a couple of years ago.

What's so different about this show? Why do so many network sitcoms fail these days and why has "Duck Dynasty" -- a family sitcom with shotguns -- done so well for A&E? What's the secret sauce on those ducks in West Monroe, La.? I've got a few ideas about that (which I also discussed in a recent podcast).

Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments, but to my mind, these are a few of the ingredients that have helped to make "Duck Dynasty" a success.

1. Time to develop an audience. This item may be the odd (ahem) duck on the list, but it may also be the most important element of the show's gradual transformation into a hit. When it comes to Nielsen ratings for first-run episodes, "Duck Dynasty" started off with about a fifth of the ratings it has now. A fifth. A bigger network wouldn't have allowed a comedy that started out with fewer than 2 million viewers to hang around for three seasons, but A&E's patience with the show -- and its constant deployment of reruns -- has allowed lots of people to get to know the Robertsons. "Bath Crashers," "Storage Wars," "Restaurant Impossible," "Duck Dynasty" -- these are all highly formulaic cable reality shows designed for lazy-day-on-the-couch marathons, which often lead to higher ratings for first-run episodes.

2. The merging of several successful, familiar formats: "Duck Dynasty" is a combination of backwoods "reality" shows, family comedies and Thom Beers' "Deadliest Catch"-style he-man shows. Nothing about "Duck Dynasty" is off-putting; we've seen everything on it before. Ultimately, it's an uplifting, zany comedy about a close-knit family that has its share of squabbles but still demonstrates intense loyalty, and that's a TV recipe that seems to have worked out well for everything from "The Addams Family" to "All in the Family" to "Modern Family." Family sitcoms are all about people who frustrate and amuse each other in equal measure, and who can't quit each other because they're related. That's a pretty good description of what goes down on the Robertson property week in and week out: Conflict abounds, but we know it's mostly in good fun, and nobody's going to leave anybody else in the lurch (or in the duck blind).

The last decade has unleashed a category of unscripted programming about people who encounter gators and other wild critters all the time, and "Duck Dynasty" smartly takes advantage of that TV genre too. What's interesting is that the rural setting gives the show a kind of freshness -- you're not going to encounter snakes and turtles and shooting ranges on "Modern Family" -- but it also supplies a great deal of familiarity. The swamp/country genre is so popular all over cable TV these days that the Robertson lifestyle doesn't feel totally exotic or off-putting (especially since they live in nice homes and often drive around in a custom RV). But the amount of time the Robertsons spend outside also allows us to live vicariously through them, without having to actually go outside and battle mosquitos ourselves.

The third genre "Duck Dynasty" mines might be the most important. Think about the impact that "Deadliest Catch" and its dozens of imitators have had on the television scene: The best of those shows inspire intense loyalty because they're savvy, well-crafted dramas about driven men battling knotty personal and professional problems.

Shows about ice-road truckers, loggers and fishermen tap into the same themes and emotions that many of TV's best scripted dramas often do: the bonds of loyalty, the cost of selfishness, the difficulty of relationships and how the definition of masculinity is changing. To A&E's credit, its executives realized there's no reason the he-man genre -- and the issues at the heart of it -- couldn't expand into the comedy realm as well. A lot of "Duck Dynasty's" storylines explore traditional and evolving ideas about gender roles, but the show delves into this territory in a gentle, playful way. Think of it as "Sons of Anarchy" with more beards and continuous hijinks that don't result in a lot of dead humans (as for ducks ... well, that's a different matter. It's not surprising that the staunch vegetarian Morrissey decided he would not mesh well with the hunting-obsessed Robertson clan).

3. Good characters. It's really hard to cast comedy ensembles that work well together; the best scripted sitcoms miraculously catch lightning in a bottle and the writers then work hard to tailor scripts to each actor's strength. There's no doubt that A&E got extremely lucky when it found the Robertson clan; other networks may try to clone what this family has -- camera-ready camaraderie -- but it should prove pretty dang hard to find. Not only are they not self-conscious on camera, they have been testing their material on each other for years and they do a savvy job of participating in what "Duck Dynasty's"Jase Robertson has called "guided reality."

Would Willie really have gone to a yoga class on his own, as he did in a Feb. 27 episode? Would the group really have gone to a team-building site to do trust falls, as they did in Season 2? I doubt it. But as Frazier Moore pointed out, the show is "a smart collaboration between [the Robertsons] and the show's producers." They're clearly being heightened, more entertaining versions of themselves, and those versions represent TV characters that are very familiar: There's the eccentric old coot, Uncle Si, who once noted that Willie's ninja sword could slice "the hair off a dolphin's chest." What? (Don't try to analyze what Si says, just go with it.)

There's Willie, another TV comedy staple, the continually frustrated boss who is always trying to get other people to take their jobs a little more seriously. There's Phil, the steady patriarch who dispenses wisdom and acts as a camo-clad role model. There's Phil's wife, Miss Kay, and Willie's wife, Korie, who also occupy familiar sitcom roles: They're women who show endless patience as they deal with their men's folly and who not-so-secretly wield great power within the family.

The show's secret weapon is Jase, whose talking-head interviews have only gotten more and more amusing since the show began. I don't know if he gets help writing his material, but I'd lay odds that he comes up with a lot of it, and his delivery, which manages to be laconic and mildly agitated at the same time, is what sells these sharp monologues anyway. His constant needling of Willie and his inability to take anything but hunting and goofing off seriously drive a lot of the show's plots, and he's entertainingly dismissive of anything corporate and pre-packaged. Come to think of it, Jase and Ron Swanson of "Parks and Recreation" have an almost frightening number of characteristics in common (and I would pay good money to see a special in which Jase and the Robertson gang go camping with and learn woodcarving from Nick Offerman, who plays the self-reliant Swanson).

Take a bunch of players who are very good at improvised comedy, put them in goofy situations and edit their antics well, and you have a formula for a pleasant dose of escapism. Sure, "Duck Dynasty" presents an idealized version of rustic life, where work is merely an occasional distraction (in that sense, the well-off Robertsons remind me of the similarly well-to-do cookbook author and TV personality Ree Drummond, who parlayed her Pioneer Woman site into a successful multimedia brand). But so what? Isn't predictably formulaic escapism what we sometimes want from TV?

4. Values. This is a word we are probably all quite sick of, especially since we had to hear it bandied about so carelessly during the last election cycle. But when thinking about "Duck Dynasty's" position atop the ratings, it's hard not to think about the recent success of the History Channel's new show, "The Bible," which opened to huge numbers. Neither show has been hurt by an open embrace of faith; if anything, they've been helped by it. Why don't more scripted shows have characters who are religiously observant (as "Friday Night Lights" did)? After critic James Poniewozik wrote about that question recently, there was a Twitter discussion about it, and the consensus was that TV writer/producers often don't know much about religion, don't care much about it, or simply don't want to offend potential audience members by getting something wrong.

But even if many TV executives (and viewers) are agnostic or uninterested in religion, it's hard to see the up-side of avoiding a subject that matters to millions of viewers. It's not that we need more shows about Biblical events -- though we'll likely get them soon -- but acknowledging matters of faith and belief could make for better and more realistic storytelling. What's more compelling than a character whose beliefs are challenged -- or who finds new reasons to stick to his or her principles?

It's not as though "Duck Dynasty" makes a big deal about the characters' faith, however, which is as it should be (most people who worship and pray don't make a big deal about it). Faith is just part of their lives, like the beards and the camouflage pants -- it doesn't get in the way of the show's strict formula, it's just one element of it. In each half-hour episode, there are A and B stories that are resolved by episode's end, talking-head segments (like those on "The Office," "Modern Family" and "Parks and Recreation"), and a concluding voiceover in which the family prays together over a meal. The thoughts Willie expresses in those segments may be sentimental and predictable, but they're also comforting and sweet. (And that closing scene is never long -- at 21 minutes without commercials, "Duck Dynasty" itself doesn't require much of a commitment).

By finding characters as reassuringly odd as the Robertsons and allowing them to have the courage of their various convictions (about hunting, God and beards), A&E has given birth to a show that actually stands for something and has a personality, which is something that most new broadcast-network comedies and dramas lack. The concepts on the big networks may have gotten outlandish (see also "Do No Harm," "Zero Hour," "Cult," "Red Widow," and that comedy with the monkey), but the execution of those Big, Broad Concepts has often been bland of late, and network product smells more than usual of fear and audience testing these days. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm guessing that the new shows we'll see on the broadcast networks next season will seem a lot less loosey-goosey than what you often find on "Duck Dynasty."

That's not to say that I feel the need to follow the Robertsons' antics obsessively: Having learned the show's formula, it's not something I think I'll find the need to watch on a weekly basis (though I may get ensnared by the occasional weekend marathon). And there's still plenty of good fare on the broadcast networks, but a lot of the time, executives there seem unable or unwilling to break out of the patterns that have driven large chunks of their audience to other entertainment sources.

Think about what would happen if ABC or NBC commissioned a show about a rural, Southern family who ran a business while getting into all kinds of wacky hijinks. Already, you're wincing. I'd bet money the show wouldn't have anyone as weird as Uncle Si, none of the characters would utter lines as sharp and self-aware as Jase's, and if the show featured a burly, bemused guy married to a hot woman, their lines would most likely be cliched, predictable and irritating to actual Southerners. The Robertsons might play around with rural and Southern stereotypes, but "Duck Dynasty" doesn't condescend to them, which is more than you can say about "Last Man Standing" and "Malibu Country," which are sadly typical of Hollywood's attempts to write about non-urban characters.

Actually, it's instructive to look at the ratings for ABC's "Last Man Standing," which stars Tim Allen as a befuddled manly man who likes hunting and who is constantly beset by family problems. The ratings for that show have sunk every season, while the ratings for "Duck Dynasty" have soared.

Whoever is writing or orchestrating these shows, the people have spoken and decided which family feels more real.

Ryan McGee and I discussed "Duck Dynasty," along with "Ring of Fire," "Parade's End," "The Americans," ""Enlightened" and "Justified" in a recent Talking TV podcast, which can be found here, on iTunes or below.

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