A&E’s badly acted, scripted Modern Dads illustrates why Duck Dynasty is so special

The success of Duck Dynasty continues to astound everyone, apparently even its own network, because based on its new series Modern Dads, it seems that not even A&E understands what makes its own show so great. (Of course, many cable networks are churning out scripted shit masquerading as reality TV, and A&E is not alone here.)

A&E paired the shows together, and while Modern Dads clearly benefits from its lead-in–it’s the second-most popular cable show Wednesday nights–it had well under half of the viewers of its lead-in last week.

I think/hope that at least some of that is because the bearded guys’ antics feel authentic, while the dads’ shenanigans do not. I try to have some faith in people to be discerning viewers.

The shows are similar in that they’re about real families and people who seem kind and caring, and who like to have fun. Modern Dads has a great and relevant concept, following fathers who are their children’s primary caregivers, even although the anxiety about gender roles and the constant reinforcement of stereotypes about men–they’re gross horny slobs who aren’t nurturing fathers–is tiresome.

The two series are also similar in that they follow a typical sitcom structure, with some kind of wacky idea propelling the cast members, who in Modern Dads include a stand-up comedian who competed multiple times on NBC’s Last Comic Standing. The contrived scenarios–let’s throw a birthday party; maybe I’ll get a vasectomy; let’s have a poker night–feel like they came from someone else’s brain.

A series doesn’t become the most-watched nonfiction cable episode ever merely by staging scenes and asking its cast members to, at best, improvise, and at worst, recite scripted lines. As I’ve said before about Duck Dynasty, its heavy-handed, scripted format works because its cast can handle the acting they’re required to do. The show is basically about them having fun doing stuff the producers create for them.

Watching Modern Dads, I don’t question whether the men are stay-at-home dads, I question why they’re being asked to act their way through so many scenes. You can see the force-fed lines in interview segments so clearly they’d be less obvious if cue cards were reflected in a mirror. The result is just bad television.

So why not film them doing things they would actually do and saying things they actually say? Why not show the actual experience of being a father raising kids, the good and the bad, the poignant and the hilarious? What, is that too much reality?

Modern Dads: D

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.