Reality gold is as scarce as junkyard ducks
August 14, 2013 10:50 AM

Up on Porter Ridge, they have junkyards and hairy guys and explosives and pet bears. But do they have the makings of another duck nation? Probably not.

“Porter Ridge,” which had its debut on the Discovery Channel on Tuesday night, is a reality show from the makers of “Duck Dynasty,” A&E’s daffy, delightful ratings juggernaut, which begins its fourth season today.

Ever since “Duck Dynasty,” a series about a Louisiana family that makes duck calls, started to take off in Season 2 last fall, everyone in the reality show business has been hoping to catch the same sort of lightning in a bottle. No one has. The show’s Season 4 premiere demonstrates why it’s so elusive.

It’s an hourlong episode in which the children of Phil and Kay Robertson, the “Duck Dynasty” patriarch and matriarch, decide that their parents deserve a real wedding for their 48th anniversary, since they were originally married by a justice of the peace.

It’s a simple premise with two converging plotlines: Can weird Uncle Si distract Phil and Kay for a day, so their home can be readied for the surprise wedding, and can the Robertson daughters-in-law overcome their husbands’ indifference so they can pull off their grand plans?

And it’s completely believable. The Robertsons have used the term “guided reality” to describe how the show is made: Producers might suggest a story or activity, but the implementation is pure Robertson. It doesn’t matter whose idea it was to give Phil and Kay a wedding ceremony; what matters is that it feels genuine. That sense of authenticity is extremely hard to pull off when you’re not using professional actors.

“Porter Ridge,” in contrast, has the same problem most shows in this genre have: Everyone’s trying too hard. The show looks in on a backwoods microcosm in Indiana. Terry Porter, who seems to own no shirts, runs an auto junkyard. Jeff, whose beard is somewhat better trimmed than the well-known ones on “Duck Dynasty,” keeps bears as pets, though, in the premiere, it is not clear why.

Assorted other characters with supposed-to-be-idiosyncratic names are also drifting about: Dirty Andy, another big-bearded fellow; and Elvis Larry, who has the Elvis sideburns. There’s a rival junkyard on a rival ridge — Dog Killer Ridge, to be exact.

Wacky names and deep-woods dialect (subtitles are occasionally used in “Porter Ridge”) are all over reality television, and they’re amusing for about 15 minutes. That’s how long it takes to realize that life in a junkyard universe isn’t all that interesting if the people aren’t interesting themselves.

Sure, there is occasional wit in “Porter Ridge,” as when Terry’s wife, Carrie, expresses a desire for a vacation.

“How long has it been since you’ve taken me on a trip?” she asks him.

“Didn’t I take you to the Iron Skillet a week ago?” he says.

But those modest flourishes are few and far between; mostly, you’re just supposed to gawk at the rusticness of it all and be amused by antics like trying to open an old safe by dynamiting it. Antics are a big part of “Duck Dynasty,” too (one episode involved dynamiting a beaver dam), but the Robertson family doesn’t need to blow up, smash and shoot stuff to hold your attention, because everyone in it has natural wit, and the crisp editing makes it all even wittier. It’s the highest-rated nonfiction series on cable, with viewership numbers (9.6 million for the Season 3 finale) that many network shows would envy.

Another thing that sets “Duck Dynasty” apart is that the characters’ roles are as clearly defined as they would be on a scripted show. Phil is the inscrutable sage; Willie, the son who runs the duck call company, is the brainy buffoon; Jase, another son, is the droll goof-off; Korie, Willie’s wife, is the levelheaded one; and so on. Too often, on backwoods and workplace reality shows, producers think it’s enough to throw assorted personalities together and let the cameras roll. It’s not. A reality show needs as much structure as a scripted one does.

One other note about the “Duck Dynasty” Season 4 premiere: It provides fans with their first sighting of the fabled Beardless Robertson Male. He is Alan, Phil and Kay’s eldest son and the only man in the family without a thick beard. Alan, a minister, has not been part of the show, but he turns up to perform the wedding ceremony.

“This is what your wives would like, right here,” Alan says, pointing at his bare chin.

“Amen,” says Missy, Jase’s wife.

“Duck Dynasty” has a rabid social-media following. Among the show’s female fans, that scene is bound to spark a fierce beard-or-no-beard Twitter debate.

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