I first heard Iggy Pop’s 1977 hit single “Lust For Life” in a commercial for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines when I was in middle school. It was and is a catchy song, and it seemed to fit pretty well with the happy, energetic people rock climbing and playing basketball on the big happy cruise ship. Next to me on the couch, though, Dad was shaking his head.
“You know this is a song about a guy who’s excited for his heroin dealer to show up, right?” Dad asked. I did not know that, and turning back to the TV I wondered if maybe the rock climbers were actually lying on a dirty mattress in an abandoned apartment in Baltimore and just sharing an unusually vivid hallucination about a cruise ship.
“These companies just appropriate rock and roll songs because they sound fun, but they ignore all the dark stuff that makes those songs what they are,” Dad grumbled, very Dadly.
So Duck Dynasty, then.
Everybody says that Duck Dynasty is the most popular reality TV show of all time, but they’re wrong. Duck Dynasty is obviously extremely popular – which is probably a sign that there’s widespread mercury contamination in America’s water supply or something – but it’s not a reality TV show. By patriarch Phil Robertson’s own admission, most of what happens on the show is set up or arranged in advance by producers. Rumor has it there are even scripts and table reads with the family before they start shooting, which makes it more of a really poorly written and acted sitcom than anything resembling “reality.”
So this family’s zany hillbilly antics, which the nation loves for their down-home authenticity and good Christian values, have actually been manufactured by a team of New York and LA-based reality TV producers, all of whom have no doubt Googled “best place to get cocaine on the bayou” at least once while on set.
But most reality TV is like this. During my short and illustrious career as a PA on a number of C-grade reality TV shows in late 2011 we put a lot of effort into staging events, telling the “talent” how to react to them, and covering our tracks after the fact to try and make it all look authentic.
Part of this is budgetary – to truly document reality, without stopping the proceedings every few minutes for retakes, you need a very large crew to be sure that there’s enough cameras to cover anything that happens at any time. Since basically every crewmember is in a union, that gets really expensive really quick. When you know exactly what everybody’s going to be doing, on the other hand, you don’t have to hire any more crew than you need.
And part of it is because reality is unpredictable – and usually not in the fun, silly way that people tune into these shows to see. The networks airing these shows are beholden to sponsors, and it’s in their best interests to make sure that the “reality” they’re documenting on these shows is friendly enough to make people want to buy things – and in Duck Dynasty’s case there’s also a half billion dollar merchandising empire to protect.
So when Phil Robertson, while talking to a GQ reporter, equated homosexuals with terrorists, or suggested that black people were totally happy in pre-Civil Rights Movement era Louisiana, or explained that he voted for Romney because he’d feel more comfortable walking around Salt Lake City than Obama’s hometown of Chicago, he unwittingly gave Duck Dynasty a long overdue shot of authenticity.
How different are the people who tune into Duck Dynasty on a regular basis from those Royal Caribbean executives? They put a catchy rock song in their commercial because the chorus – Lust for life! Lust for life! – sounds fun when you don’t listen to the other lyrics – With the liquor and drugs! And a flesh machine!
And everybody in America was content to watch a bunch of highly religious backwoods rednecks so long as A&E sanitized all the unpleasant parts of their social, political, and religious views. People in the suburbs wanted to enjoy all the quaint things about this conservative religious white family in the Deep South – accents, beards, guns, hunting, family, good Christian values – without confronting any of the uncomfortable and equally real aspects of that lifestyle, like racism and homophobia. Duck Dynasty viewers were perfectly content to believe that the Robertsons were The Beverly Hillbillies until Phil Robertson made it clear that they weren’t.
If you’re a Duck Dynasty fan and you quit watching it after this fracas, answer me this: What did you think you were watching? What did you think these people believed? You either already figured that they held these beliefs, or you assumed that an extremely religious and conservative family who has intentionally tried to isolate themselves from modern society held nuanced and tolerant views about sexuality and race.
I want Duck Dynasty to stay on the air for a good long time. I want the show to engage with this controversy. I want A&E to quit selectively editing the Robertsons’ life and instead show the whole picture of who they are, inviting viewers to draw their own conclusions about this goofy, eccentric, loving, and prejudiced family.
That would be a TV show that would make people think. And if we know anything about reality TV viewers, it’s that thinking is one of their favorite activities.
Truman Capps would be extremely amused if there was a Duck Dynasty in ancient China.