It's a popular trope in science fiction to ask at what level of artificiality does a person stop being a person. If you have a prosthetic leg, you're still you, but if you're down to only a few original organs — or if your brain gets put into a robot body — is that still the case?
I've found myself thinking of those questions, oddly, while watching some recent episodes of "Duck Dynasty." The reality show about a Louisiana family who sell duck hunting merchandise is a monster hit, drawing ratings — last week's episode attracted 8.6 million viewers and a whopping 3.9 rating among adults 18-49 — that puts it in the same neighborhood as the most popular shows on the broadcast networks. NBC would kill to have a sitcom do 2/3 as well as "Duck Dynasty." In fact, the only comedies on any networks doing those kinds of numbers are "Big Bang Theory," "Modern Family" and "Two and a Half Men."
I bring up comedies because what's so interesting to me about the success of "Duck Dynasty" is how unapologetic it is about being a sitcom that just happens to feature a real family whose members play themselves.
That most reality shows are scripted on some level is not a state secret. In a New York Times feature on the show back in the fall, the Robertsons used the phrase "guided reality" to describe how things work: the producers suggest an idea for a scene, or an episode, and then the family members act it out using their own words, relating to each other the way they usually do. Take away the fact that the Robertsons aren't trained comedians and you have a creative structure (though not a level of comedic brilliance) not that far removed from something like "Curb Your Enthusiasm," where Larry David comes up with the story and then invites his actors to improvise with him.
Take a recent episode, "Si-Amese Twins," in which Willie brings a human resources consultant in for a seminar on healthy workplace interactions. The guys immediately start doing everything she's lecturing against, and Si decides to have some fun with a pair of handcuffs he recently found:
Wacky hijinks ensue, as Si and Willie are cuffed together for the rest of the episode, forced to figure out how to drive, go to the bathroom and otherwise go about their day like that. I can imagine many sitcoms — particularly the rural ones that were so popular in the '60s ("Green Acres," "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Andy Griffith Show") — doing this exact episode, with many of the same punchlines, even.
Which leads to me to the thing I wonder about "Duck Dynasty," and about some of the other more popular docu-shows on cable: would this show be as popular if it were presented as an overtly scripted version of itself?
If, say, TBS had debuted "Duck Dynasty," pretending that the Robertsons were actually an improv comedy troupe from Louisiana, and given us this exact show with these situations, this dialogue, etc., would an audience go for it, or would they dismiss it as cartoonish yokel humor? Now what if you removed it a step further, and perhaps still had the Robertsons playing themselves, but on a stage in front of a live studio audience in the multi-cam tradition? Or if you had actors saying and doing the exact same things the Robertsons did?
Similarly, what if a broadcast network decided to do a scripted drama version of "Deadliest Catch"? Thom Beers and company have shown there is an enormous appetite for stories about men working in muscular, blue-collar professions, but if, say, John Wells did a take on that world with actors, would it be ignored as another slick Hollywood take on things?
This is a situation where I'm asking questions to which I genuinely don't know the answers, and am curious for a lot of outside opinions. On the one hand, a show like "Duck Dynasty" is filling a void that the comedy business hasn't been particularly interested in or able to fill in a long time. On the other, while amusing things happen in the show, it's not what I would call a laugh a minute experience; how much does its audience grade on a curve because the Robertsons and their relationships with each other are real, even if many of the situations they get into are contrived?
(And while many viewers are aware of the level of scripting that goes on with these shows, some are not and just assume the production team just showed up and turned on the cameras, which could make them even more forgiving than if watching a sitcom episode where a man and his uncle get cuffed together.)
It just feels like the lines between the scripted world and the unscripted world are becoming blurrier all the time, and I'm curious what amount of artifice ultimately becomes too much for the audience. Are people watching "Duck Dynasty" because it's funny, because it's real, and in what proportion? And how many aspects of reality do you have to strip away before the audience stops viewing the show as real — and would they find it entertaining enough in that case?
What does everybody else think? This isn't an exercise in reality TV-bashing, but a question of what distinguishes "reality" from overt fiction, and how important that distinction ultimately is. Have at it.
The "Duck Dynasty" season finale airs tomorrow night at 10 on A&E, with the entire Robertson clan going on vacation to Hawaii. I haven't seen it in advance, but I wouldn't be shocked if at some point Jase comes across a cursed tiki idol.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com