TV viewers have become fascinated by cable’s backwoods boys.From bayou gator grabbers on History’s “Swamp People” to the folksy unpretentious millionaire family on A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” these real-life characters have captured a wide audience with their down-home ways. The shows, which include Animal Planet’s “Hillbilly Handfishin’,” History’s “Cajun Pawn Stars” and A&E’s “Billy the Exterminator,” have become big business for cable. Twitter went into overdrive May 14 when Mitchell Guist, one of the stars of “Swamp People,” suddenly passed away. For that week, the series snagged a whopping 4.1 million viewers. Unlike other reality series, such as “Jersey Shore” and the Kardashian franchise, these shows largely avoid train-wreck relationships. Instead, the emphasis is on family, morals and fun — not necessarily in that order. And despite the fact that the National Enquirer or OK magazine aren’t writing about the swamps of the South, ratings for these shows are often higher than anything on the more celebrity-favored nets Bravo and E! In addition, these shows don’t need critical approval for auds to tune in. “There are just too many screeners, and you tend to go for the things that will pop,” says Philadelphia Daily News TV critic Ellen Gray about the lack of coverage. “These are shows viewers can love even if a critic didn’t tell them to.” But Max Dawson, a professor of film and television at Northwestern U., thinks these shows are worth watching and analyzing. “They are like those enjoyable sitcoms of the ’60s, like ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ but are being enacted not by professional performers but real-life people,” Dawson says. “They are warm and funny, but every bit as savvy as the Kardashians.” “Duck Dynasty” revolves around the antics of the Louisiana-based Robertson clan who have become wealthy with their duck calls. The half-hour offers plenty of chicken-soup advice (“If you are too busy to fish, you are too busy,” says brother Jace) and crazy escapades, including a honey hunt that ends badly for most of the Robertsons until patriarch Phil shows them the right way. Judging from the strong ratings, viewers are fascinated not only with the casts, but also with a part of the country that is unfamiliar to most. “They show a way of life and rich culture we would never ordinarily see portrayed on television,” Dawson says. “You see how they interact with the environment.” For those who think these shows might be exploitive, New Orleans Times-Picayune TV critic Dave Walker allays those fears. “Louisiana breeds characters who are unselfconscious about their lives and always on the alert for visitors with loose money,” Walker says.
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