The other day, while working at my internship at an entertainment-focused publication, my supervisor asked me a riveting and culturally significant question: “What is Duck Dynasty, and why do we care about them?”
Part of my job at this particular internship is to keep up with the trends and developments of the entertainment world, but this question took me by surprise not because of its content, but because I immediately knew the answer without having done an ounce of actual research on the subject. “The show is about a family in Louisiana who became rich through their business selling products for duck hunters. It’s pretty funny,” I responded, eager to prove myself.
The look on her face indicated to me that my knowledge of the Robertson family duck hunters, the fact I watched a reality show on the relatively underappreciated channel A & E, and the idea that I found it funny was a little unusual. The reason the question was brought up, however, was because of the recent reference to the show at the Emmy’s by host Neil Patrick Harris. The comment about hoping to take a “selfie” with the cast of Duck Dynasty coaxed a giggle out of the star-studded audience, but made me wonder, what does the increasing popularity of these shows say about our society?
Duck Dynasty and other shows like it have garnered a significant amount of viewers in recent years. According to Deadline.com, the TLC reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a series following a Georgia family, recently broke a network ratings record when Mama June and Sugar Bear, the mother and father of the brood, wed in a ceremony complete with camouflage wedding dress, snagging the No. 2 spot for all TV programs in the 9 p.m. time slot. How did a show about a family that literally needs subtitles to be understood (they speak English, by the way) beat out the hyped up powerhouse dramas of more well known networks?
Could it be that society only like these shows ironically?
For some, the answer is surely yes. Admittedly, it can be rather entertaining to poke fun at some of the more quirky characters, but a desire to laugh at these shows can only take ratings so far. Some of these reality shows have become more than a national joke, evolving into some sort of cultural phenomenon. Though they might start out as something to watch because nothing else was on TV, a legitimate following has developed for many of these programs.
My affinity for these shows, however, is usually genuine for two reasons. First, television has provided a form of escapism for viewers since it’s invention. Though I do enjoy watching television shows that are interesting on deeper level – as in, they have a plotline that serves to communicate certain themes to the audience via well thought-out conflicts throughout a series of episodes – there is something to be said for plopping down on the couch and watching something completely mindless for 30 minutes. After a long day at work, sometimes the last think you would want to do is pick apart a symbol-riddled episode of Breaking Bad.
Second, the subjects of these reality TV shows are real. They really exist in the world, and yet it is almost unbelievable that this could be the case. It’s oddly intriguing to see the actual lives of people so different from myself play out before my eyes. And watching the lives of these off-the-wall individuals is completely fascinating, at least in my opinion. I could watch the Long Island Medium Theresa Caputo channel the dead grandmother of the women next to her in the grocery store check out line, see a random person try to sell fossil he found in his backyard to the History channel’s Pawn Stars, and witness the daily struggles of a polygamist family on Sister Wives all in the span of two hours. They certainly don’t represent the norm, but they do exemplify the diversity of our culture.
Aside from the innumerable ways one could point out that these stars are the outliers of our society, the main thing that keeps viewers coming back is the way that they are like us. On Cake Boss, the audience sees bakery owner Buddy Valastro and his large Italian family stick together through the trials and tribulations of owning a business together. Viewers can experience the struggle of little people Bill and Jennifer as they try to adopt a child on The Little Couple. The Millionaire Matchmaker Patty Stanger is simply helping people in their quest to find true love. For the junk-filled storage unit auctions of Storage Wars, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times probably said it best: “[Storage Wars is] a strangely uplifting show — hope being one of the many things one can apparently find in an abandoned storage unit.”
Unlike the traditional dramas and comedies that are recognized by critics and at award shows, reality television has a way of connecting with an audience on a more tangible level. No bells and whistles – well, maybe a few – just people dealing with the same problems we all are. The stars of these shows may be characters, but the ability to see the humanity in these characters is what makes them so appealing.
Or maybe duck hunting is coming back in style.