'Duck Dynasty' ignites culture war as boycott looms

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For a moment, things were getting better. Republicans and Democrats awkwardly joined hands, grumbling, to pass the first divided-Congress budget deal in nearly three decades this week. Partisans howled, yet rival factions took care of business despite enormous differences with minimal drama. The grand canyon of America’s political divide seemed to narrow, at least by a few inches, for a few days.

Then this happened.

Phil Robertson’s homophobic and weirdly genital-fixated comments in GQ. His non-apology defense suggesting he’s not bigoted because he loves people. A&E’s suspenseful pregnant pause as the hours ticked by on Wednesday. And then a network response that went beyond what anybody expected: Booting Robertson from the show “indefinitely.”

The decision shocked and impressed progressives accustomed to networks moving slow and hesitant when faced with such nerve-wracking and profit-endangering controversies. There was no waffling amid water-testing statements like with Food Network and Paula Dean, or MSNBC with Martin Bashir or Alec Baldwin. Just boom – you’re gone.

And then … holy duck … did all hell break loose. A&E’s decision infuriated certain Duck supporters: How dare A&E punish Phil for merely quoting scripture and speaking his mind? A Fox News reporter accused “anti-straight groups” of attacking Robertson. Sarah Palin slammed A&E for being against free speech. A “Boycott A&E” Facebook page has racked up 500,000 Likes. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal threw in his support, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz chimed in.

The seeds of this have been buried for years. Rural work-based reality shows skew extremely right-wing. It was probably only a matter of time before the star of one these titles publicly collided with the more progressive attitudes of the show’s network. That this happened with Duck Dynasty, a series regularly setting cable TV rating records, makes the conflict all the more ground-shaking.

Over at our sister publication Time, critic James Poniewozik has a compelling and well-written essay running down yesterday’s events. But during the piece he argues Robertson’s statements represent Duck Dynasty‘s subtext; hinted attitudes that have now become overt. Or as Deadline put it: “A&E shocked to learn Bible-thumping Duck Dynasty star talks like Bible thumper.” Or, like many readers essentially sarcastically said in their comments: News flash: Redneck is bigoted.

Do you see what’s happening here? Conservatives: Robertson’s suspension is an attack on faith and free speech! Liberals: Of course a hick family is anti-gay, they’re all like that! And so the culture divide grows again, filling with pointed assumptions darkly assuming the worst in others.

Let’s all take a breath, exhale slowly.

Now. What next? A&E is in a tough spot.

Backing off their suspension of Robertson would be seen as caving to pressure instead of sticking to their guns. Executives can’t do that.

Yet shooting Duck Dynasty without the family’s patriarch could be awkward and potentially brand-damaging for the show. Duck Dynasty has managed to call itself a “reality” series with a straight face despite the storylines being clearly guided. Since it’s not like Phil will be booted from his real-life family for his comments, having him conveniently out of sight cracks the fragile construction that this is a documentary-style show. He may not be the focus of the series, but every minute he’s mysteriously absent will remind us that Duck Dynasty is heavily fictionalized, and that A&E does not approve of at least one family member’s beliefs. And will the rest of the family even play ball with A&E with their Duck Commander in the brig?

Duck Dynasty resumes its fourth season on Jan. 14. An A&E rep says the rest of the season has already been shot. Which raises another question: Does A&E edit Phil out? Or just have him not participate in any new episodes beyond what’s been filmed?

Unclear. Here’s what is clear: The best thing about Duck Dynasty — and I hesitantly suggest that we all can agree on this — is that the series portrays (accurately or not) a close, happy, moral, loving, goofy, non-cynical family. That remarkably old fashioned portrait of a TV nuclear unit brought millions upon millions of viewers together. With Robertson’s comments, A&E’s decision and the resulting media and viewer uproar and name-calling, a uniquely positive family comedy illusion has been shattered. The pieces won’t quite fit back together the same way again. And that’s a loss.

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