How the all-American family of ‘Duck Dynasty’ landed in hot water

Duck Dynasty family © BSkyB
The Duck Dynasty Robertson family

There’s trouble brewing down by the bayou, says Variety. A&E, makers of reality TV smash Duck Dynasty, which follows the lives of a Louisiana-based family of entrepreneurs, has suspended its star for making derogatory remarks about homosexuality.

Patriarch Phil Robertson’s unguarded references to “sin” in an interview with men’s magazine GQ have sparked a furore in America (see below). But, with another series due in January, the big question in industry circles is: what will happen to ratings?

Before Robertson’s foray off-script, A&E had focused on keeping the show “safely apolitical, ensuring smooth digestion for a mass audience”, says GQ. That’s how this “family of squirrel-eating, Bible-thumping, catchphrase-spouting duck hunters become the biggest TV stars in America, with some 14 million fervent disciples” in the first place.

The “funny, family friendly show” features the antics of Phil, his brother “Uncle Si”, his four sons, and “the perpetually exasperated but always perfectly accessorised Robertson-family ladies”.

They plunder beehives, blow up beaver dams, get stuck in hydraulic lifts – and every episode is capped with a heartwarming family dinner. One critic calls it “a cross between The Beverly Hillbillies and The Waltons”.

The show, in its fourth series, reportedly earns the family $200,000 an episode. That’s just the start, says The New York Times. “Forget the ZZ Top beards and the bayou accents, the Robertsons of West Monroe, Louisiana, are a family of traditional American entrepreneurs: ambitious, rich and spectacularly successful… even before they were TV stars.”

Within the hunting industry, the Robertsons were already celebrities due to their core product: an uncannily authentic duck call.

The range of merchandise attached to their name is so vast (shirts, caps, coolers, books, edibles) that keeping track of it “has become almost impossible”, says Phil’s son, Willie, 41, heads of the tribe’s Duck Commander commercial empire. This year, visiting Walmart’s HQ, he was surprised to see his face on a garden gnome.

Like all great sagas, the Robertson story has a core theme of redemption, says GQ. The son of “a roughneck father” and a “manic-depressive mother”, Phil Robertson grew up “bone poor”. A star footballer, he earned a scholarship to play at Louisiana Tech, “but quit after one season because football interfered with duck-hunting”.

In his 20s, married with three sons, he fell into bad ways: “getting drunk, chasing tail”, and brawling, before being spectacularly ‘born again’.

In 1972, “with Jesus at the wheel”, he founded Duck Commander – and never looked back. The cult success of his duck calls led to a DVD series, then a show on the Outdoor Channel and, eventually, Duck Dynasty.

TV stardom has changed the family’s lives forever. But Phil is philosophical. “This thing ain’t gonna last forever. No way,” he says. “Three, four, five years, we’re out of here.”

Free speech destroyed the reality TV illusion

When Phil Robertson’s sons broached the idea of a reality family sitcom, he wasn’t keen, says The New York Times – he was “already as famous as he wanted to be”. He changed his mind when it was put to him that he could use the show to “talk about the things he really liked to talk about”.

Now, without the safety-catch of A&E’s editors, the born again lay preacher has blasted his way to a national scandal. Asked by GQ what he thought constituted “sin”, Robertson replied: “start with homosexual behaviour and just morph out from there”.

The row morphed into a debate about free speech, with everyone from TV comedians to Sarah Palin weighing in, says AJ Marechal in Variety. “Free speech is an endangered species; those “intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing personal opinion take on us all”, Palin tweeted.

There’s an petition, demanding the network apologise to Robertson and bring him back. “A&E likely felt it had little choice but to act swiftly”, given its stated corporate values and the risk of becoming “a pariah in Hollywood” and damaging relationships with key advertisers.

But there’s the counter-risk of a conservative “backlash against the backlash”. Network chiefs “will have to wait and see” if ratings are hit when the show returns in January.

“Everybody knows that reality TV is… about as ‘real’ as the dazzling smile a Miss America contestant flashes when an opponent’s name is called,” says Forbes. Even so, the revealing of Robertson’s “true colours” has trashed the carefully constructed compromise at the heart of its success – and made us all poorer, says Allison Keen in The Hollywood Reporter.

As an “entertaining and appealing version of middle American life”, Duck Dynasty was a rare example of a TV show with “common ground for very different populations”. Whatever else happens, “that’s over”.