Entertainment analysts with major media outlets are questioning whether the recent suspension of a major character from the record-breaking show Duck Dynasty was the right move.
“It appears from A&E's own comments that the last thing they want interfering with Show Phil is Real Phil,” said NPR's pop culture blog editor Linda Holmes.
On Dec. 18, the A&E network announced Phil Robertson, star of the major cable hit Duck Dynasty, would be placed on an indefinite hiatus, following a recent interview with GQ magazine in which he said that he believes homosexual behavior is sinful and illogical.
The announcement drew significant attention, as Duck Dynasty has broken records for the most-watched nonfiction cable telecast in history. The show follows the lives of a Louisiana bayou family that became wealthy with a duck call business that was started in a family shed.
Holmes pointed to the statement released by A&E, which said that Robertson’s comments to GQ “are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty.”
She questioned “what kind of sense this makes” for A&E to distance itself from Robertson’s personal beliefs, when those beliefs “are part and parcel of the religious faith that has been one of the show's selling points.”
The network “is explaining that Phil's personal beliefs are not reflected in the show that is ostensibly about Phil,” she observed.
Holmes also suggested that “it seems vanishingly unlikely that A&E has filmed Phil for 50 episodes and didn't know he felt this way.”
“That makes it hard to believe the suspension is meant to send Phil off to rethink his position on gay people or learn to be more tolerant if they haven't done so before,” she said. “It seems 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.”
While the network “has every right to suspend him,” she continued, it now faces a problem with pleasing its audience, who tune in to the show that is promoted as offering “real, genuine, cinema beardite stars who simply can't stop keeee-razy things from coming out of their mouths.”
“By putting (and keeping) the show on the air, the network seems to be acknowledging that people appreciate the opportunity to see a family like Phil's, but by suspending him, the network seems to be acknowledging that at least some of the audience wants a partially obstructed view,” Holmes said.
She questioned the real effects of suspending Robertson indefinitely while continuing the show.
“(T)he suspension itself seems to consist of little more than the announcement – little more than the obligatory ‘we acknowledge that we have to put out this statement and we therefore hereby put this statement out’ kind of announcement,” she said, wondering what its real effects would be.
This point was also raised by James Poniewozik, television critic for Time Magazine, who questioned why precisely Robertson had been disciplined by the network.
“Was he suspended for believing that being gay is a sin? For saying it out loud? For saying it in those terms?”
The conservative Christianity of the Robertsons “was a selling point” of the show, Poniewozik observed. But when these conservative Christian views are spoken openly, “the stuff Phil thinks and says creates an irreconcilable problem.”
The show may appeal to comedy fans and people with cultural nostalgia, the writer acknowledged. “But for at least part of the huge Duck Dynasty audience, the Robertsons’ faith is part of the appeal: the fact that they’re public, devout Christians with a public platform, even if their faith was mostly background to the zany family antics.”
Therefore, there will be pressure on the network from both sides – those upset with his comments and those who will be upset at any move to punish him for what he believes, and what many viewers may also believe.
Poniewozik suggested that perhaps A&E is using a vague “hiatius” to solve the problem.
“Is A&E going to put out a season of Duck Dynasty in which we just kind of forget that one of the family members exists?” he asked. “Or is this a “hiatus” that blows over once everyone forgets about this, Phil puts out some kind of crafted statement, and allows for the shooting of a full normal Duck Dynasty season? You know, like the exact same thing we would get if A&E didn’t do anything at all?”
Protests of A&E's decision quickly sprung up. Within 18 hours, a Facebook page calling for a boycott of the network had gained half a million likes. More than 46,000 people also signed an online petition labeled #IStandWithPhil.