'Duck Dynasty' may be coming to an end – but not its cultural dynamics

The show was a runaway hit for A&E, boasting a record-breaking peak viewership of more than 11 million for the première of its fourth season.

Scott Dalton/ Invision for DICK'S Sporting Goods/ AP
Phil Robertson, reality television star from the 'Duck Dynasty' series, meets with a fan during an appearance at the new Dick’s Sporting Goods Grand Opening Celebration at the Baybrook Mall in Friendswood, Texas, on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016.

After a reign that extended more than four years, a once-powerful TV dynasty is coming to an end. 

"Duck Dynasty," a reality TV show that follows a family of successful duck-call makers in Louisiana, will be discontinued after its 11th season. The show was a runaway hit for A&E since it launched in 2012, boasting a record-breaking peak viewership of more than 11 million for the première of its fourth season – and a touchstone for cultural tensions playing out during its heyday, and no less today.

In 2013, for example, A&E suspended family patriarch Phil Robertson after he likened homosexual behavior to "bestiality" and suggested that black Americans were happy under Jim Crow laws. The network later reinstated him, following backlash from the Robertson family and some viewers.

The ascent of "Duck Dynasty" – and the so-called "redneck TV" boom it encapsulated – came at a critical cultural moment. Four years had passed since the 2008 recession, but financial stability was still out of reach for many working class Americans, as The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson reported in 2014: 

The rise of redneck TV has paralleled one of the toughest economic stretches for the American worker since the Great Depression, a time of polarized politics and economic data that shows the middle-class dream is slipping away. Some experts believe this malaise has pushed Americans toward the visual equivalent of escapism and comfort food: shows about family, adventure, danger, elemental nature, and colloquial wisdom, such as “Swamp People” star Jeromy Pruitt complaining about a tough day on the bayou: “It’s hard as Chinese arithmetic out here, boy.”

"There’s more independence there. There’s more satisfaction in doing things that make you closer to the land or nature, or forging a living with your hands," Marc Pierce, the producer of the hit show "Mountain Men," told the Monitor. "And even for people who don’t do that kind of work, I think that those audiences – who skew male, of course – it’s voyeurism for them. They’re living vicariously or contemplating vicariously through these characters: ‘What would it be like? Would I be happier? Is he more of a man than I am?’ "

The end of "Duck Dynasty" comes at a similarly critical time. Today, there are more white Americans in deep poverty than any other group. In recent years, white Americans without a college degree may also have been the most pessimistic demographic: just one-third believed their children will be better-off than they are, according to a 2011 Pew study. 

In many ways, so-called redneck TV was marketed to the same communities it seemed to portray. The Robertsons shunned elitism and "political correctness," at least on camera. They spoke freely about their deeply held Christian beliefs in a time when, for all of religion's perceived political sway, just over one-third of Americans say they attend services weekly. The "Duck Dynasty" clung to their way of life, in spite of a coastal elite they believed was determined to mock or forget them.

And it was this subsection of America that, at least according to some narratives, helped carry Donald Trump to victory in the 2016 presidential election.

"An underappreciated part of this election cycle is the fear that some groups of people are playing by different sets of rules – maybe your neighbors, maybe immigrants, political elites, the wealthy and powerful," said J.D. Vance, a Kentucky "hillbilly" turned New York Times bestselling author, in an August interview with the Monitor. "It's actually so ingrained in people’s minds that unless you pretend to be part of another crowd the gatekeepers are going to keep you out. It's a very real feeling."

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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