The Robertsons will be celebrating the sale of their 5 millionth duck call on tonight's "Duck Dynasty", and A&E is no doubt celebrating the record ratings its show is earning. Averaging 8.2 million viewers in its third season, "Duck Dynasty" is the No. 1 nonfictional television series on cable and its double episode season 3 premiere was more discussed on social media than its Wednesday night competitor "American Idol," a major network heavy hitter.
At a time that other reality television shows like "American Idol," "Survivor" and "Real World" are molding, why does "Duck Dynasty" shine? "Buckwild," "Hillbilly Handfishin" and others are also reality TV set in the country, but none has seen the massive success of "Duck Dynasty". A key to Dynasty's popularity may be found on other end of reality TV's cultural spectrum, "Keeping Up With the Kardashians."
Both shows focus on a family, the business they run together and the lifestyle that it lends. For 40 years, the Robertsons have made duck calls, most famously the Duck Commander for which their business is named. Patriarch Phil Robertson started the business in a shed, but it has grown exponentially, and now is run by his son Willie. Willie's brothers Jep and Jase help with various aspects of the business, but spend most of their time gallivanting in the woods. Phil's brother Si also stars on the show, occupying the "crazy uncle" role.
The Kardashians' origin story is a little more nebulous, involving O.J. Simpson, Paris Hilton and a sex tape scandal. Now, sisters Kim, Kourtney and Khloe run a number of boutiques, fashion lines and marketing campaigns with the help of their "momager" Kris, as depicted on E!'s "Keeping UP With the Kardashians." Kris's husband Bruce Jenner, the track and field Olympian, also appears frequently on the show, as does the younger members of the Kardashian clan. In its seven seasons, Keeping Up With Kardashians has spawned many spin-offs focusing on some combination of the original's stars, making the family an omnipresent force on the network.
Both families are wildly successful at what they do, and their shows depict the lifestyles their success allows them to lead—lifestyles far different than those of their viewers. For "Duck Dynasty", that means camping, hunting, fishing and all other sorts of redneck revelries. For the Kardashians, it's red carpets, photo shoots, lavish trips and professional sporting events with their athlete boyfriends and husbands.
But in a context alluringly foreign to their audience, the day-in and day-out plotting on "Kardashians" and "Duck Dynasty" is often quite relatable. Willie wants lose weight for his high school reunion (weight loss is a repeat topic on "Kardashians"). The brothers try to cheer up Willie's son when he breaks up with his girlfriend. Si wants to buy a new dog.
No doubt "Duck Dynasty" also veers into the not-so-relatable territory—a lizard gets loose in the Duck Commando warehouse and the Robertsons wreak havoc trying to capture it—but the familiar brotherly exchanges persist, albeit littered with countrified rhetoric.
And the relationships that family members have with one another set apart "Duck Dynasty" and "Kardashians" from reality shows that bring together strangers—whether for competition (like "Idol" or "Survivor") or conflict (a la "The Real World," where castmates "stop being polite and start getting real"). Only families can perpetually fight and compete without any lasting harm, and the permanence of a family can carry many a television season. The conflict on "Kardashians" often boils over into shouting matches, while on "Dynasty" it simmers in friendly insults and humorous ribbing. However scripted these situations—and even the Robertsons' cleverest of lines—may be is no matter. These families have the charisma and confidence to deliver.
To see what life is like in the backwoods of Louisiana or mansions of Hollywood may be what first piques our interest. But the familiar family relationships—however heightened or dramatized—are why we keep coming back. Every episode "Duck Dynasty" ends at the family dinner table, with Willie narrating a universal lesson on how everybody can get along.
Fictional television is seeing a the rise of the anti-hero—from "Breaking Bad" to "House of Cards." But maybe when we watch "reality" what we really want to see are characters we can love like family, except with camo, shotguns and plenty of "y'alls."
Duck Dynasty is on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on A&E.