“For the life of me, I can’t figure out why people are so attracted to our family,” writes Phil Robertson. And that was before “Duck Dynasty,” the Robertson family’s reality show, smashed records for a nonfiction cable program when 11.8 million viewers checked out the season premiere in mid-August.
Phil, as nearly everyone calls him, is the bearded, 67-year-old progenitor of the backwoods Louisiana clan that made it big selling duck calls and found its way into millions of other American homes through the previous three seasons of “Duck Dynasty.”
A&E network bills the show as “funny, functional and family-filled.” In the realm of reality shows, that’s a surprising reversal of the formula for success. Standard reality fare is “friction and fits of rage and four-letter words,” as the second of Phil’s four sons, Jase, described it in an interview.
It’s also a surprising reversal in the story of a family whose earlier chapters weren’t so “happy, happy, happy” — as Phil likes to refer to life now. The catchphrase supplies the title of his autobiographical book. In it, Phil recounts a miserable episode early in his marriage to “Miss Kay” when his drinking and all-night partying almost ruined the lives of the whole family.
Running a dilapidated bar didn’t help, and things only got worse when Phil assaulted his landlords in a dispute about the lease. The low point came after Phil kicked out Kay and their three sons at the time. Kay moved the boys into an apartment that a church helped pay for. She put everything in her maiden name, fearing for their safety.
Phil showed up a few months later, broken by the meaninglessness of life without his family. Kay, who had become a Christian before the separation, insisted that getting right with God was essential to Phil’s getting back on track. Phil met with her pastor. Convinced and convicted, he was baptized.
Phil worked as a commercial fisherman before finding his true “calling” — as he punningly puts it — making duck calls. He started a company called Duck Commander, now headed by third son Willie. Hard work involving all four sons paid off. Later the Robertsons began making hunting videos. Hollywood came a’calling.
The wild popularity of “Duck Dynasty” doesn’t seem to have changed the Robertsons much. They’re still most comfortable outdoors hunting or fishing or blowing up stuff in West Monroe, La., affectionate toward one another, and open about their Christian faith.
Nearly every episode ends with the extended family in prayer around the dinner table. Speaking around the country and to media, family members are evangelistic and candid about how their faith shapes their lives.
For one thing, they’re serious about marriage. “One of the great tragedies I see is people not putting every effort into the foundation of their marriage,” Miss Kay writes. “My grandmother told me that it’s one man and one woman for life and that your marriage is worth fighting for.”
She would know — and it showed in the poignant fourth-season opener. It featured a wedding ceremony for Phil and Kay, a surprise arranged by their daughters-in-law on their 49th anniversary. They’d never had a wedding, only a visit to the justice of the peace. This time eldest son Alan, a pastor, officiated.
“We’ve been through some good times and some hard times,” Kay recalls. “I loved you when we were poor, and you were not so nice.”
The Robertsons also are committed to sexual abstinence before marriage. On one episode, Phil accompanies a grandson and the boy’s girlfriend on a date (in Grandpa’s boat) and has a talk about it.
They’re pro-life. In his book, Phil rues the fact that there seem to be more federal rules protecting ducks than unborn children.
They’re entrepreneurs, proponents of the right to bear arms and uninhibited by political correctness.
The Robertsons are pretty much the profile of Americans who “cling to guns or religion,” in the caricatured terms used by one prominent politician a few years back. However much elites may deride the caricature, America sure loves this real-life version.
No doubt many view “Duck Dynasty” as a refreshingly wholesome alternative to much of pop culture (see: Hannah Montana morphing into Madonna at the MTV Video Music Awards).
“Maybe it’s because we live our lives like people really want to live,” suggests Phil.
If his hunch is right about what draws folks to such an unabashedly conservative family, it’s a good sign. More Americans speaking up for what they believe — about life, marriage, family, faith and freedom — could lead to a surprising reversal for our country as well.
• Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.