After watching six episodes of the highly scripted "reality" series "Duck Dynasty" last weekend, I'm in a better position to understand the furor surrounding patriarch Phil Robertson's suspension from cable's No. 1-rated show.
Last week, A&E put Mr. Robertson on indefinite hiatus from the hit series because of an embarrassing interview he did with GQ magazine.
On the show, Mr. Robertson, a graduate of Louisiana Tech, pretends he's just an unassuming backwoods hick from the Louisiana swamps and not a former teacher who earned a master's in education. Given his penchant for philosophically astute observations, it shouldn't come as a surprise that at 67 Mr. Robertson is the most self-aware character of "Duck Dynasty" and the one most likely to engage in didactic pronouncements on matters both religious and cultural.
His playful references to his three daughters-in-law as "yuppies" is a recurring trope that highlights his disdain for their city-slicker roots and their unbridled pursuit of suburban creature comforts. He frequently uses "rednecking" as a verb and subtly positions himself as an example of a more authentic way of life.
When Mr. Robertson took his wife and a daughter-in-law hog hunting in a recent episode, their cluelessness contrasted sharply with his rugged individualism. At one point, Mr. Robertson "tricks" the women into making unintelligible pig calls that make them look ridiculous. It is one of the least authentic scenes in an episode ringing with fake moments.
Still, it was probably the show's writers, rather than Mr. Robertson, who were most at fault. He was merely following a script he had been given. He's several seasons into mastering the role of the stoic Christian swamp lord who refuses to be "softened" by his family's half-billion dollar fortune. He knows his role is to be the clan's most uncompromising redneck and cultural evangelist.
While it is true that the Robertsons had already made the bulk of their fortune as Louisiana duck-call merchants by the time "Duck Dynasty" debuted, the show's writers and producers approached the clan with something more ambitious in mind than showcasing a regional phenomenon. A&E collaborated with family members to expand their appeal beyond the South with sharply written scripts that jettisoned any pretense at being a documentary.
The Robertsons that appear on A&E are composed of Phil and "Miss Kay," his wife of nearly 50 years; their trio of squabbling but loving sons who run the business; their sons' materialistic but good-hearted wives; two bored but obedient teenagers; and a couple of too-stupid-to-be-true employees.
Because everyone is wacky in a sitcom-friendly way, "Duck Dynasty" operates as both a critique and unabashed celebration of consumption and Christianity in rural America. It occupies the same sentimental space as "The Andy Griffith Show," but with a sensibility that is smart enough to wink at its own pretensions.
Still, "Duck Dynasty" would barely qualify as a guilty pleasure if not for Phil Robertson's off-script remarks to GQ magazine. His assessment of the merits of straight and gay sex and the alleged docility of pre-civil rights era blacks lacks the wit of his scripted remarks, revealing a man with a tenuous grip on history and a Santorum-like predilection for dwelling on the mechanics of sex acts he abhors.
"I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person," he told GQ. "Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked with the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. ... They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' -- not a word! ... They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues."
Mr. Robertson's take on political ideology is just as iffy: "All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I'll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus, look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero. That's 80 years of ideologies. ... Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups."
A&E's decision to suspend Mr. Robertson over his comments was ridiculous because it made him a free speech martyr and deprived non-fans the dignity of laughing at him without feeling indignation on his behalf.
I feel even sorrier for A&E's talented writers who helped create the character. Gone is any notion that Mr. Robertson is secretly smarter than the backwoods hick he pretends to be. Now he'll feel compelled by higher ratings to act like a cliche.
Tony Norman: email@example.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.