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Duck Dynasty and Girls, from beginning to end, reflected a splintered America

Two very different shows became awkward stand-ins for our modern political reality.

Girls and Duck Dynasty A&E/HBO
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In an appealing but weird TV coincidence, A&E’s Duck Dynasty and HBO’s Girls — which debuted in March and April 2012, respectively — ended their respective runs in satisfying parallel, on March 29 and April 16, 2017.

The two series were diametrically opposed in everything from viewership to media attention. Duck Dynasty, at its height, commanded more than 10 million viewers for first-run broadcasts, while Girls was lucky to break 1 million. (HBO has always hinted that far more of the show’s viewership watched it online, but even being extremely generous in that regard, it’s unlikely that Girls came anywhere close to achieving even half of Duck Dynasty’s audience.)

Yet Girls commanded magazine covers, critical raves, and, eventually, massive backlash. It was treated as a huge, prestige TV show, which was always a little ill-fitting for a series so tiny. Duck Dynasty was usually written about more as a red-state curiosity.

There were commonalities between the shows all the same. In their own way, both dug into underrepresented points of view on television at the time they debuted. Duck Dynasty was set amid the world of religious conservatives, while Girls followed young single women in their 20s.

It’s easy to forget now, in a world with Broad City and Insecure and others that followed Girls’ lead, but Girls really did feel unlike anything else when it premiered. Duck Dynasty, meanwhile, was influential itself. It didn’t invent the “reality sitcom” genre — that was MTV’s The Osbournes in 2002 — but it correctly identified a gap that sitcoms had once filled that they just didn’t any more. In its own way, Duck Dynasty was an (inferior) update of prior rural sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show or Green Acres.

And the two shows had one far larger thing in common: Thanks to the politics of their creative personnel, they became cultural shibboleths, shows that stood in for certain worldviews to many observers.

If you watched Girls, you were probably a mainline Democrat. If you watched Duck Dynasty, you were probably a Republican. And while that distinction doesn’t reflect on the quality of either show, it explains a lot about how we think about cultural signifiers, and the ways we expect our entertainment to reflect our political and cultural values.

Both Duck Dynasty and Girls lost their relevance to the cultural moment

Duck Dynasty
The Robertsons made for appealing protagonists on Duck Dynasty.

I should state upfront that I consider Girls one of the best TV shows of the decade, while I’ve always found Duck Dynasty hard to take, even by the standards of the disreputable reality sitcom genre. That quality assessment is, I think, mostly divorced from the politics of both shows, but I could never say it’s 100 percent separate.

Watching Girls in 2017, the show felt like a period piece for a bygone era. Its small-scale interests in its characters reaching their big goals for their creative lives, or figuring out how to balance romance and a career, or charting their own identities in a world where such things are more self-determined than ever before, increasingly seemed like dispatches from an alternate reality. Girls is a show of the presumed permanent Democratic majority — which you might have noticed didn’t really exist — and to watch it in an America that feels like an angry pushback against everything it represents, on every level, is a little weird.

None of that should take away from the series’ many good qualities. It was frighteningly well-acted, and creator Lena Dunham remains a terrific filmmaker who has an able platoon of fellow directors working alongside her. Throughout its final season, Girls regularly turned out razor-sharp episodes that either satirized its characters or demanded you feel empathy for them after they did something awful.

It’s also one of the few TV shows that truly seem to be about how the central group of characters probably shouldn’t be friends — a gutsy move for a medium that thrives on creating fictional friend groups for viewers to imagine themselves a part of. If Girls endures into the future, it will be because these qualities allowed it to transcend the political climate of the moment.

But that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes TV shows just get caught in their particular eras and can’t escape them. (This is usually what we mean when we say a show is “dated” or “doesn’t hold up well.”) Indeed, this has arguably already happened to Duck Dynasty.

At the height of Duck Dynasty’s success — which came with its fourth season in 2013 — the series commanded an average viewership of 9.4 million. The season four premiere, a wedding episode titled “Till Duck Do Us Part,” pulled in nearly 12 million viewers. (I should state here that due to shorter production cycles, reality shows often run multiple seasons in one calendar year. Duck Dynasty had three separate “season premieres” in both 2014 and 2016, which is why it has nearly double the number of seasons that Girls does.)

But the show’s fate quickly turned. A GQ interview in which series star Phil Robertson stated that he found homosexuality “sinful” resulted in A&E suspending Robertson from the series for two weeks in December 2013.

And though the suspension didn’t really affect production, the reverberations from it demonstrably hurt Duck Dynasty’s ratings. Season five tumbled to an average of just over 6 million viewers, and season 11 — the show’s final — posted viewership numbers much closer to those of Girls, sometimes struggling to top 1 million viewers.

Weirdly, even though religious conservatives recently helped elect Donald Trump to the presidency and even though the Robertsons were Trump supporters, Duck Dynasty has felt less and less relevant with every season. Its reality, too, feels like an alternate one. Trump might be president, but it’s hard to argue he’s at all a Christian conservative leader.

Why it was often faulty to try to make either show a stand-in for The Way We Live Today

Hannah Horvath will have her revenge.

And yet if you were to ask any casual cultural observer to name a “conservative” TV show, they’d almost certainly mention Duck Dynasty. It’s a “red state” show in the way that Girls is a “blue state” show — which is to say that it’s a rural, religious show, where Girls is urban and secular.

In somewhat similar fashion to how Girls received outsize media attention compared to its modest viewership, Duck Dynasty is still seen as a major conservative pop cultural landmark, even though almost nobody watches it any more. (A much better current “red state” show — both in quality and in terms of actual viewership — is ABC’s Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing.)

Presumably, Duck Dynasty had plenty of viewers who disagreed with the Robertsons’ political viewpoints, who didn’t mind that each episode ended with a prayer but also didn’t particularly care to hear about the family’s thoughts on homosexuality. The hefty tune-out after the GQ interview suggests as much. (You could also, conceivably, argue that the Robertson family’s willingness to play ball with an A&E-sponsored diversity message drove away some of its more conservative viewership.)

The more you pull back from the two series, as well, the easier it is to see the weird similarities running between them. Both are “diverse” in one fashion, because of the groups they represent, but both struggled to burst out of their own self-imposed bubbles (as anybody who’s seen any episode of Girls featuring a person of color will attest).

Both also struggle to deal with the realities of American class. Both Girls and Duck Dynasty are about characters who have money and don’t really have to worry about not having it. Hannah’s parents cut her off in Girls’ series premiere, but it never seems to bother her much, and while the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty have the trappings of poor, rural America, they’re a tremendously rich family. Class used to be the great theme of the American sitcom, with many of our best series taking place in environments where the rich and poor were forced to rub shoulders, but neither of these comedies was ever all that interested in how having money set its characters apart from those around them.

All of which is to say that both Girls and Duck Dynasty became political shorthand precisely because talking about them as being representative of political worldviews is an easy way to engage with politics without really engaging with the results of politics. Taken to their logical conclusions, the blithe indifference of Hannah and her friends and the anti-modern views of the Robertsons were horrifying. In the context of a TV comedy, such horrifying possibilities can be fun to examine. But in the context of What Does It All Mean think pieces scattered throughout the media, it was too easy to label each series as a massive signifier for The Way We Live Today.

You’ll note that even I am doing it here, while frantically trying to undercut myself. So let me do it one last time. The real similarity between the slow slide of both Girls and Duck Dynasty is pretty simple to explain: Viewers got sick of them as they were overexposed.

Duck Dynasty made way too many episodes and released a lot of merchandise — the old “How can we miss you when you won’t go away?” principle. And though Girls released just 10 episodes in every year but 2014 (when it released 12), the sheer level of media attention it drew could make it seem like it was everywhere, all the time.

The weird coincidence of these two shows beginning and ending within weeks of each other is tempting to read as an explanation for two rapidly diverging Americas that were miles apart in 2012 and feel as if they might as well occupy different realities in 2017. But Duck Dynasty and Girls are ultimately just two TV shows, subject to the same laws of ratings gravity as any other TV show, and finally done in by the most common TV death of them all: Viewers wondered what else was on.

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