One of America’s broadest and best family sitcoms, Duck Dynasty, which is, yes, also a reality TV show, returns for its fourth season tonight on A&E. Duck Dynasty, about the antics of Louisiana’s hirsute, wealthy, proudly redneck Robertson clan, has been a huge hit for the cable channel, racking up ratings that would be the envy of ABC, NBC, CBS, or Fox. Executives at those networks must be beating their chests: Duck Dynasty is exactly the comedy they have been trying and failing to make for years and years. It is the funny, likeable, idiosyncratic, noncreepy, upbeat version of the crisis of masculinity sitcoms that have cycled through the networks, with more coming this fall. It’s a show in which men, aware of a changing world, hyper-perform certain aspects of their machismo—facial hair, hunting, a no-one-tells-me-what-to-do attitude—but with two key ingredients: self-awareness and joviality. The Robertson men happily ham it up for the camera they know is there, laughing instead of crying about the end of men, and it takes the sourness out of the shtick.
The Robertsons, a close-knit, multigenerational, religious Southern family that has made a fortune crafting duck calls, have described their show as “guided reality.” This means they are in cahoots with the producers when it comes to planning and executing any given episode’s plot points, which tend to be ripped right out of sitcom 101. Past episodes have followed the family on camping trips and high school reunions. They all hew to sitcom beats and are punctuated by solid to very good one-liners: The Robertsons are quick and deadpan improvisers.
In tonight’s premiere, the three grown Robertson sons—straight man Willie, wise-cracking Jase, easygoing li’l bro Jep—are prodded by their wives into planning a vow-renewal ceremony for their parents on the occasion of their 48th wedding anniversary. Jase and Willie complain endlessly—about their wives’ texting habits, how they would rather be fishing, having to get dressed up—until the whole thing comes off without a hitch and they conclude that part of being a man is doing anything to keep your wife happy, even if you whine about it the whole time.
The wives of Duck Dynasty are also familiar from sitcoms: they let their husbands get up to all the mischief, while they roll their eyes and, ultimately, are proven right. They are the soft power behind the loveable blowhards. Many of Duck Dynasty’s plots and jokes revolve around a low-key anxiety about being pussy-whipped (in the premiere someone makes a whipping sound effect at least three times), but though the men on Duck Dynasty may fetishize certain masculine behaviors and generalize about women for the camera, modern gender relations—in which men and women are genuine partners, not adversaries—does not inspire in them panic or outright misogyny.
Unlike their sitcom brethren, the Robertsons are not sad-sacks but successes. Changing social and economic circumstances have made them more protective of their guns and their religion and their beards, but have otherwise allowed them to thrive. They are rich and getting richer, famous and widely beloved: If it is the end of men, it is not the end of them, and the show’s spirit reflects their good fortune. So long as they get to keep their beards—much to their wives’ chagrin—they are content and confident enough not to mind that the joke’s on them.
And the Robertsons, more than any other reality TV family, seem totally in on the joke. Duck Dynasty has a nearly frictionless relationship with exploitation—as in, you do not watch it and think anyone is being exploited—an extremely rare feat for any reality show, but especially one about the personal lives of its protagonists. Duck Dynasty offers the best of both TV worlds: As with a sitcom, you can watch without feeling any creeping ickiness at the lives being upended or mocked for your entertainment. And as with a reality show, you can enjoy genuinely idiosyncratic individuals who are too specific—too Southern, too Christian, too into their guns, too hairy, too rich—ever to appear in a sitcom.