Is 2012 the year of the duck? The producers behind Duck Dynasty, an A&E reality series about a family of erudite duck hunters, hope so.
Produced by Los Angeles-based Gurney Productions, the series follows the comedic exploits of The Robertsons – an entrepreneurial family living in the Louisiana bayou – who run Duck Commander, a successful business built on hand-crafted duck calls and decoys.
The show premiered with two back-to-back episodes on March 21, rating 1.8 million total viewers, according to the U.S. cable network. Two more episodes will air today (March 28) at at 10 p.m. EST.
In a bid to differentiate it from other shows in the ‘redneck space,’ execs at Gurney and A&E hope viewers will be drawn in by the Robertsons’ comic wit and sharp business instincts. Though they may look like the feral love children of Willie Nelson and ZZ Top, Duck Commander CEO Willie Robertson and his father Phil are both highly-savvy businessmen with post-graduate degrees.
“It’s like Modern Family in camo,” Gurney Productions executive producer Scott Gurney tells realscreen. “What intrigued me initially was not the fact that they’re rich rednecks, but that they’re extremely true to who they are and they’re extremely intelligent. Underneath those beards are some serious brains.”
Gurney was raised in Louisiana and Texas, where the Robertsons have been local celebrities for a while thanks to a series of hunting videos and a TV series that aired on the Outdoor Channel. “Behind the white collar button down, I’m a redneck,” he adds. “Phil Robertson is pretty famous in that world and if you grew up down there and you do any form of hunting or fishing, you know of them. All my cousins including myself looked up to this guy.”
Network execs were similarly taken with the clan: the sizzle reel for the show was the subject a bidding war. Feeling the show would best suit a network able to reach family audiences and a mixed male-female demo, Gurney decided to go with A&E, which greenlit 15 half-hour episodes.
In the pilot episode, CEO Willie is faced with a large order of duck calls that he must scramble to fill while his wife Korie and mother Miss Kay are trying to recruit him to co-star in a series of cooking videos. Dad Phil, meanwhile, goes bullfrog hunting and imparts sagely advice to his grandson, such as “If she knows how to cook, and she carries her bible and lives by it, and she loves to eat bullfrogs, now there’s a woman.
“She doesn’t have to be a pretty girl. Just ’cause she looks a little homely, that’s alright,” he adds. “Hard to get a pretty one to cook and carry a bible anymore.”
Gurney and A&E structured and pace the show like a scripted title, in a bid to capture the feel of a million-dollar network sitcom, focusing on the music, the way characters enter and exit a scene, and the way two separate story lines intertwine.
“We’ve been in this item-based, takeaway world for over a year now with Pawn Stars, Auction Hunters and Storage Wars, and it’s time now for a new type of television to take over,” Gurney says. “This is the answer to the expensive, scripted shows on networks. This is a cheaper way to get the same comic timing out of a half-hour sitcom.”
The challenge for execs at A&E will be striking that comedic tone in an unscripted series with characters that are working their jobs during the shoot. To ensure the series would work, the network ordered two pilots.
“This is fresh terrain for us – comedy and hunting,” says Elaine Frontain, an executive producer on Duck Dynasty for A&E. “One great pilot can be a fluke, two great pilots you know what you have and they really knocked it out of the park in both – and both will be airing.”
So how does a family of duck hunters fit with A&E’s programming slate?
“It just plays into a lot of what’s in our wheelhouse,” says Frontain. “It’s an unusual world, it’s a very unusual family and they’re inimitable. That’s the kind of character we want on A&E: unique and yet relatable.
“They are iconic looking and then when they speak, they don’t sound anything like how you would expect based on the way they look,” she adds. “We were thrilled by that and we realized this is a fresh space – nobody’s really been in the duck hunting space. Family is clearly such an important part of what the story is going to be that it really just hit a lot of things in our wheelhouse.”