The 11th season premiere of “Duck Dynasty” saved its biggest surprise for last -- literally. The clan of one of TV’s major reality series announced at the close of Wednesday’s launch that this season will be the last, or per Willie Robertson, “after five years, we’ve decided this will be the final chapter.” The final episode will air April 12.
“We’ve” was the operative word in Wednesday’s farewell notice, indicating that the Robertsons themselves had decided to end that which has turned each into a household name -- at least in those millions of households where they are still watched -- and their series into an extended cultural moment, or in one blazing instance, a controversial one, too.
At launch in 2012, “Duck Dynasty” was effectively at the vanguard of a whole new subgenre of reality TV -- dismissed by some as “redneck reality” -- which stood in stark contrast to that other part of the genre largely controlled by another famous-for-being-famous clan, the Kardashians. The latter was (and is) bling, show-biz, Hollywood, and relentless self-promotion, in service of an greater empire that lay beyond the screen. The former was (and is) guns, beards, Bible belt homilies, and also self-promotion in service a greater empire that lay beyond the screen -- hunting merchandise producer Duck Commander, which has interests in NASCAR (Duck Commander 500) and even college football (Duck Commander Independence Bowl). The Robertsons were also vocal supporters of Donald Trump’s candidacy.
That each series should eventually become part of a raging culture war debate is -- or was -- hardly unexpected.
Nevertheless, shows do not cancel themselves, and trade reports late Wednesday used the word “canceled.” A&E has yet to make a formal statement. Indeed, “DD’s” live ratings remain relatively strong -- around three or million viewers on average last season -- but those are far below the torrid numbers of earlier seasons. The August 2013 one-hour fourth season premiere was seen by 11.8 million viewers, setting a cable TV record for a reality series.
But at its height, the end began: In a Dec. 2013 interview with GQ, family patriarch and Duck Commander founder Phil Robertson was asked what he considered “sinful,” and responded: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.”
There was an immediate outcry, and A&E hastily suspended Robertson from the show -- obviously an unworkable solution because Robertson was a member of a real family. Indeed, even networks don’t have the power to suspend family members from their actual family. Then, the fan blowback began. A&E was stunned by its ferocity, and within a few days, reversed itself. But the damage to the biggest hit in its history had been done, and could not be undone. Ratings ultimately softened and never recovered.
Meanwhile, Phil Robertson has refused to play the role of congenial Duck Commander founder that the production had consigned him to, at least off-screen. Over the summer he released a direct-to-video film, “Torchbearer,” which chronicled, in his words, the fate of “nations when they do not think it is worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God.” It contained footage of Nazi and ISIS torture scenes.
In an interview promoting the film in August, Robertson refused to disavow the statements he had made to GQ, saying “I gave ‘em a Bible verse,” when he made the statement. “You can’t find out on what is sinful from an encyclopedia,” but only from the Bible. Of his critics, he said: “They need to be arguing with God.”