Duck Dynasty controversy: when fiction was finally overtaken by reality

The aftermath of Duck Dyansty star Phil Robertson’s comments to GQ has been swift and predictable: A&E suspended him “indefinitely,” and now there’s all kinds of furious reaction, including IStandWithPhil.com, where people can publicly agree with Phil’s thoughts about the parts of the Bible he’s decided to believe in.

The most high-profile response has been from Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal, who, like some of the show’s fans, are saying he’s had his First Amendment rights taken away. These people–especially the politicians, gah–need to read the actual First Amendment, which protects citizens against government preventing their free speech. There’s no constitutionally-protected right to stay on a reality show after you’ve babbled nonsense.

Speech has real-world consequences, and that includes consequences to business relationships; Phil can say whatever he wants, and A&E can do whatever it wants with its show.

Anyway, two TV critics have written thoughtful pieces on all of this that I encourage you to read: NPR’s Linda Holmes argues that “that Real Phil is instead being suspended for opening his mouth to GQ and fussing with the carefully maintained image of Show Phil by telling people what he actually thinks — by telling people who have appreciated his family’s devotion to devotion, as it were, about the parts of their faith that A&E doesn’t talk about.”

Both are touching on a key point that hasn’t quite been made directly: The A&E series Duck Dynasty is fake. It’s a scripted series on which real people play versions of themselves doing things they would not be doing if camera crews weren’t there and producers weren’t telling them what to do. They have fun and joke with each other and pray, but the central conceits of the episodes are scripted like a sitcom. At best, they are recreating versions of what they’ve already done, though still with changes; at worst, they are just lying to the audience, such as when they pretended to have bought a winery but actually did not.

Along with lying about things like that–and yes, I consider it a lie, because the show presents itself as reality television, not as, say, Curb Your Enthusiasm–the show presents an altered version of reality by concealing what Phil believes, and possibly what other members of his family thinks, too. The characters on the reality sitcom do not completely encompass who they are in real life–which, of course, is true of all reality TV, because characters are created in the editing process. Here, though, the editors have only scripted versions of real people to work with.

What happened this week, finally, was that Real Phil finally shattered the image of Show Phil, to borrow labels from Linda Holmes. The high-profile venue and the absurdity of the things he said combined to finally elevate the previously less-well-known real Phil Robertson.

Reality finally came to Duck Dynasty, and it was not a reality A&E wanted.

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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.