by Kathy Fuller
I hate reality TV. I’m talking a seething, teeth-gnashing kind of hate, one borne from being a
victim viewer of varied types of reality programming over the years. I’ve seen the shows about the kids, the hoarders, the housewives, the voices, the idols, the survivors, the couponers, the cake makers, etc. I’ve never been able to maintain a vested interest in any of them. Mostly I just lament the hours I wasted watching unlikeable people in lame situations with manipulated conflict, all represented as “real”.
So when I heard all the hoopla surrounding Duck Dynasty, I wasn’t going anywhere near it. Although I’m southern born and bred and have no problems with rednecks, I prefer my men with a lot less facial hair. But EVERYONE watches this show. The third season finale pulled in over 9 million viewers. Compare that with NBC’s entire network line-up and this show is a hit.
Plus, my husband started watching it. Therefore, I caved.
I’m glad I did because it’s not typical reality TV. And as I started catching up on the show, I realized writers should take note of this series. Here are five things we can learn from the men in beards:
1) Start with a unique premise. Duck Dynasty is about some Louisiana rednecks who came from poverty—family matriarch Phil Robertson invented the best duck call evah—and within one generation became millionaires. Huh. You don’t see that every day. But while this is an unusual premise, the show also follows tip number two:
2) Make it familiar. Fish out of water, country mouse/city mouse, rags to riches. Call it whatever you want, the same trope has been used for centuries. As a writer you want to do something new while keeping it anchored in something old, such as:
3) Using character archetypes. This family is filled with characters from central casting: an OCD brother, a lazy, instigating brother, a younger, sweeter brother who gets picked on, a curmudgeonly father, a crazy uncle, a nurturing mother, and wives that are the polar opposites of their husbands. I don’t care who you are, you can relate to someone in this family on some level (probably because we all have the crazy in our families). But while the archetypes are obvious, they also follow number four:
4) Give them layers. Willie, the main “character” of the show, is not only OCD and a CEO, he’s also a redneck who happens to live in a mansion. He looks like he’d be the first one to hop on a Harley and drive across the country. Except he can’t ride a motorcycle. He likes to hunt and camp, but would rather be in a fifty-foot RV than a tent. These opposite characteristics make him interesting, vivid, and occasionally idiotic. Which leads to number 5:
5) Add a dash of humor. Duck Dynasty is a clearly a comedy, the reality world’s equivalent to a sitcom. If these guys took themselves seriously they’d be like every other craptastic reality show out there. Often when we watch reality TV we are laughing AT the people involved. We laugh WITH the Robertsons on Duck Dynasty. Huge difference. This also applies to dramas–there’s nothing worse than a drama that’s soooooo serious. Even melodramatic Downton Abbey has it’s wry moments. Which, ironically, help keep it real.
Duck Dynasty might not be everyone’s cup of tea–or glass of tea, as Si Robertson would say. But the show is finding and maintaining an audience. They’re doing a lot right, more than many network sitcoms out there. It’s a TV show that follows the writing rules before breaking them to pieces.
Strive for that in your own writing and you’ll find success.