When I mention the A&E show "Duck Dynasty" to people, I usually get blank stares and rapid blinking, as if I've suggested a vigorous round of dwarf tossing or a moonshine-and-possum Thanksgiving. Of course, that's still better than the reaction I get to "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." Lips curl. Eyes roll. "Disgusting," one acquaintance muttered. "I'd never watch that garbage. It's just the lowest of the low."
Whether or not that's true, I think at least a few of my friends are lying. People are watching these shows -- a lot of people, actually. An impressive 4.4 million people tuned in to "Duck Dynasty"'s second season premiere, and "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" was often the most watched cable show of its night, with the season finale drawing in 2.8 million eyeballs.
And for that, I am glad. Yes, you heard me. Glad.
I'm not saying either show (and especially "Honey Boo Boo") is without problems. Critics (armchair and otherwise) have suggested that they're exploitative, or sneer that they're "redneck chic." "Honey Boo Boo" gets the brunt of the condescension for glamorizing unhealthy eating, a lack of education and laziness. People shudder in revulsion at the mere idea of viewing people with mountain man beards, or who chew tobacco, or who believe farting is a weight loss method (that's just "Honey Boo Boo," by the way). It's just so… uncouth.
I would argue that anyone who bothers to watch either of these shows might be surprised. While the Robertsons of "Duck Dynasty" are wealthy from their duck call business, money hasn't translated into fancy cars, designer clothes or other traditional ear markers of success. No, mostly this family just likes to goof around, tell jokes and enjoy themselves while Willie, the brother in charge of actually running the Duck Commander duck call-making business, gets frustrated with his brothers' inability to focus on the task at hand. It's a gentle, family-oriented show with a wry sense of humor that transcends the usual reality TV focus on fighting, showing off, or competing for cash prizes. It is, in a word, refreshing -- whether or not you want to give the men of the family extreme makeovers.
The world of "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" is more problematic. It seems clear that TLC created the show as a spin-off of "Toddlers & Tiaras" not to present an alternative to the aspirational focus of most reality TV, but to encourage snickering and smug self-satisfaction. We get plenty of scenarios calculated to incite gasps of disgust from the audience -- Mama June going to a spa to have her neck fat cleaned out, for example, or the family competing in a mud pit jump.
But what has resonated with viewers probably isn't the gross stuff -- it's the fact that the family seems perfectly happy with themselves, regardless of what people may think (or worse, say). Though money is an issue, and it's hard not to wince watching how it gets spent (Mama buys food at an auction to save money for a pricey pageant dress for perennial loser Alana), the family doesn't (so far) seem entirely fixated on the stuff. Granted, they're living large(ish) now that TLC has them on the payroll, and I don't feel entirely confident that the show won't ruin what's most appealing about the family -- though June does want her precious angel to win a pageant (and that precious angel does "holla for a dolla"), their focus overall seems to be set on being happy with themselves. They don't have the fire to be aspirational, granted, but that's okay. While I have plenty of problems with other elements of the show, the pure likability of these people is hard to resist.
This doesn't mean I'm not watching "The Real Housewives" and countless other reality shows that focus on the baser things in life -- snagging the perfect husband, getting the biggest house, cat fights, drinking and hair pulling. But it's a relief, after a long recession (which isn't over for a lot of people), to watch television that doesn't have a focus on who has the nicer designer shoes, beating down the competition and picking arguments for the sake of arguments.
Although it's hard to say there are hard and fast trends in reality TV (while "redneck" programming has taken hold, so have shows about buying the contents of abandoned storage spaces, for example), this one is encouraging. There may always be an appetite for watching people with too much money behave badly, but it's good to see that the basic cable networks finally realized there's also an appetite to see people at the other end of the spectrum, folk just being themselves. And if sometimes that means chewing tobacco on screen, so be it.
Do you watch "Duck Dynasty"? What do you think of reality TV in general? Do you think "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" is exploitation or entertainment?