After Phil Robertson said the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person (to wit: his opinion of homosexuals, the 21st century, a GQ reporter), there were many people calling for his suspension (which happened), his reinstatement (which also happened) and the end of “Duck Dynasty” (which didn't). While ratings represented a year-over-year dip when the show returned for a fifth season in January, 8.5 million viewers are nothing to sneeze at, especially for a basic cable show. This week the show lured in under 5 million viewers, again making it the most-watched basic cable show by a landslide. Not bad, but less than half of the 11.8 million that was the series' high watermark.
I watched last night, and it's easy to see why “Duck Dynasty” became a breakout hit in the first place. Yes, it's as scripted as any other reality show, probably more so (that isn't a shock to anybody at this point, right?), but in this case the producers decided to create a good-natured family sitcom with a cast of gleefully genial hams instead of the usual bicker fest. I'm struck by how comfortable these non-actors are with the camera (though Willie did get some practice with “Buck Commander” on the Outdoor Channel first).
More than that, I'm amazed by the family's instinctive understanding of how to deliver a punchline. This is a bunch of natural-born comedians. The storylines are relatable (poor Willie gets a lot more flack from his “employees” than any other CEO I can think of), the cast is kooky but recognizable, and it's sweet. Funny. It's the TV equivalent of comfort food that you can gobble down with the whole family.
While much has been made of Phil's comments, and old pictures of the menfolk looking like Land's End models sans those trademark beards have made the Internet rounds, it doesn't seem that the “Duck Dynasty” backlash is to blame for sinking ratings. The truth is that ratings were in decline well before the fifth season began — the 8.5 million viewers who tuned in for the premiere represented a tick up from the 7.3 million low the show hit toward the end of its fourth season. Ironically, people who may have fallen off the “Duck Dynasty” bandwagon in the fall of 2013 may have come back for season five because of, not in spite of, the backlash.
Still, ratings are down from what had to have been an unsustainable high in August, and the show itself certainly isn't to blame. It's the same as it ever was, a warm and fuzzy redneck hug. So, that can only mean one thing — we've changed.
Television shows, especially reality TV shows, have a shelf life. Some shows are able to extend that shelf life by adding new cast members (for family sitcoms, the “fix” always used to be tossing a young kid into the machine — Cousin Oliver from “The Brady Bunch,” anyone?), tossing a major curve ball into the plot (Kimye), or just changing the look of the show. Sometimes it works, but not often. When a show becomes a breakout hit, we see the stars on every magazine, get inundated with promos, then smacked in the head with books, posters, promotional items and whatever other products can be tied to the coattails of success. Eventually, we get tired of it.
A&E has certainly made sure we get as much “Duck Dynasty” as we can stand in the form of repeats, but the challenge will be in giving the show a life-extending makeover. “Duck Dynasty” is about the Robertsons, plain and simple — though the recent addition of John David as Willie's assistant and Willie and Kori's foster daughter Rebecca might open the door to new stories. But a more major overhaul would most likely destroy what makes the show so appealing to people. It's one family making duck calls, praying over dinner, and hanging out, done.
In its fifth season, some of the storylines are starting to feel familiar, and there are only so many wacky wild goose chases Si can take us on. “Duck Dynasty” isn't likely to be going away anytime soon, but it may not be must-see TV for a lot of people anymore. Guess what? John Godwin still likes snacks! Willie's brothers don't want to work hard! Repeat! If you miss this week (and the week after, and the week after), don't worry. You'll totally be able to catch up.
The big media dust-up over “Duck Dynasty” has mostly died down, and the press has moved on to the next scandal du jour. We viewers are also enticed by the new and shiny, and basic cable plops out a bevvy of new series more often than our DVRs can handle. “Duck Dynasty” isn't a dead duck by any means. It just might be floating along for a while. I bet the Robertsons don't much care either way.
Do you still watch (or did you ever watch) “Duck Dynasty”?