‘Duck Dynasty’ meets shadow-puppet culture war
If you have strong feelings about a TV show, why not at least watch it?
So I was doing an Internet search on “Duck Dynasty.” These days, it’s the thing to do. And at one point, I Googled “bullets and beef jerky,” a term that came up in this year’s holiday special, when two stars of A&E’s smash-hit reality show were standing in the local Walmart, discussing Christmas gifts for their employees, concluding that, with a certain pair of items, you really can’t go wrong.
"Bullets and beef jerky," they continued, in such a self-congratulatory way that I wondered if it had become a catchphrase, in the vein of Jersey Shore's "Gym, Tan, Laundry." Turns out, not yet. But the phrase did turn up a blog that's dedicated to refuting everything Sarah Palin says.
This seems a dubious way to spend your time, given Sarah Palin's current state of relevance. But Palin has been a staunch defender of "Duck Dynasty," and this blogger, who hates Palin, hates the top-rated cable series by extension. Not that she has ever actually seen it.
"I am proud to say that I have NEVER watched an episode," she wrote. But she had watched an Internet clip of that Walmart scene, and from that, concluded that the show represents everything wrong with America. "I am astounded, saddened, and scared that this show is so popular," she proclaimed.
Scared of hunting? Beef jerky? She wasn't clear. But her comments section was filled with people who were equally venomous, and equally proud of not having seen the show. Which is one big problem with the latest shadow-puppet culture war. American freedom being what it is, no one is obliged to watch "Duck Dynasty." But before you turn the channel in a fit of self-congratulatory disgust, it helps to know what you're condemning.
By now, whether you've watched or not, you surely know the saga. Phil Robertson, the 67-year-old founder of a multimillion dollar duck-call manufacturing empire, made a series of colorfully bigoted statements to a GQ reporter last month, based on his personal interpretations of the Bible. The article went viral. The outrage was swift; A&E "suspended" Robertson from filming a show that wasn't currently being filmed.
Then came the backlash, from Palin and her ilk, plus grass-roots protesters who fumed when Cracker Barrel briefly stopped selling Robertson-themed merchandise. Finally, A&E reversed its meaningless position and said Phil could take part in the money-making, after all.
I'm not here to defend Phil Robertson. Out of context, what he said was appalling, and he's been spouting this stuff for years. But context matters, so here's some you can glean from actually watching an episode or two. In the media circus, Robertson has been portrayed as the mastermind of his family enterprise, lionized by A&E as some sort of model American. He isn't. Not even close.
Yes, Phil invented the duck calls that made his family rich. But it was his son Willie who built up the business, developed lines of related merchandise, and shopped a TV show featuring his family's semi-scripted hijinks (on which he now serves as executive producer). If you put "Duck Dynasty" in Kardashian terms — and, really, that's the proper way to view it — Willie would be the Kris Jenner of the operation. Phil . . . well, he'd pretty much be Kim.
His role, in other words, is to be mocked. The show suggests he has a sort of backwoods wisdom — in the series premiere, he gives a grandson "river rat counseling" while decapitating bullfrogs — but that he's also pitifully retrograde. His rants about "yuppies" are a running joke, because we see that his sons, minus their entertainment-value beards, are almost as bourgeois as they come. In fact, the whole show is basically a joke, a series of skits about family members gently mocking one another, with some obligatory concluding scenes about togetherness and the healing powers of fried food.
Sure, it would be nice if the series were braver, and truly explored the implications of Phil's views on the rest of his soft-palmed family. (Would that one of his grandsons be gay, or move to Brooklyn.) But that's not what we generally get from semi-scripted reality TV — which is part of the reason the genre, formulaic and tired, isn't my cup of tea.
But those who see Phil Robertson as a dangerous symbol of religious-right encroachment are as wrong as those who claim he's a First Amendment test case. Of course, he has no right to be on TV. But I'm kind of glad he's there. As a modern-day Archie Bunker, raising his guns in futility against the future, he serves a cultural purpose. See it for yourself.