We have long heard that the South will rise again, but who thought that return would be led by a 7-year-old girl and a band of brothers with ZZ Top beards and a fondness for frog hunting?

Yet here we are amid an explosion of reality shows about the South, more specifically the rural South, where TV producers seek out characters with thick accents and thin educations – rednecks, in other words.

MORE PHOTOS » Alana Thompson covered in mud from the Summer Redneck Games on an episode of "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." CHRIS FRATICELLI, TLC

Since the debut of History’s “Swamp People” two years ago, the roster of redneck reality shows has grown to nearly two dozen, headed by the ratings hits “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and “Duck Dynasty.” And more are headed our way, like MTV’s forthcoming “Buckwild.”

The shows offer a variety of protagonists – hog farmers, moonshiners, accidental millionaires – but what happens in them is pretty much the same: The characters take part in a backwoods activity, preferably involving mud; do something low-class, like let the dog lick the frosting on a wedding cake; use as much bad grammar as possible; and fight with each other. Setting something on fire – ideally themselves – is a bonus.

Reality TV always has pursued its own latest trend, with knockoffs of the most recent hit an absolute certainty. “The Real Housewives of Orange County” has spawned a franchise that now includes New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, Miami and Beverly Hills, as well as several off-brand copies. The megahit “Pawn Stars” revitalized the what’s-stuff-worth genre.

But no topic in reality-documentary land has ever turned out as many shows as the redneck boom, which has spawned series on A&E, Animal Planet, CMT, Discovery, History, National Geographic and TLC.

It got it start, coincidentally, as part of the dangerous-jobs series boom begun by Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch.” The History channel launched “Swamp People,” which focuses on Louisiana’s annual 30-day alligator hunting season. The character’s thick accents and backwoods ways caught hold. The trend accelerated last year with the success of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” and this summer’s TLC smash “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is keeping the engine stoked.

But why do viewers find rednecks so appealing? The answer is multifaceted.

Demographic appeal plays a major role, says Richard Goedkoop, a retired professor of communications at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

“For one, it reaches the young male audience that is difficult to target with content that is not sports,” Goedkoop said. “Second, it reaches a somewhat older male audience that wants to relate to a more basic element in their past: the frontiersman, the hunter, the gatherer. Third, it reaches part of a more general audience that is looking for diversion that takes them out of their mundane suburban or urban lives and probably makes them feel superior to those being portrayed.”

And that last element is particularly important, says Bob Batchelor, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at Kent State University in Ohio and an expert on popular culture.

“The fascination with celebrities and high class lifestyles still exists … but reality TV show creators have found that audiences also respond to the grotesque, whether it is someone bombing and then getting berated on “American Idol” or getting dirty in a Southern swamp,” Batchelor said. “The fascination with rural Southern culture is based on the rest of the nation’s misunderstanding of the region and its basic prejudice against the South in general. The rest of the country does not feel that making fun of the South is off-limits. As a matter of fact, Southerners are a group that it is still permissible to mock.”

Others, though, don’t see the pandering to stereotype as necessarily harmful.

Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York, believes that criticizing a TV genre for stereotyping a subculture “underrates human’s intelligence.”

“People can tell the difference between a TV show and real life,”

Some even see an aspirational aspect to shows like “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” That series, which drew more than 2.5 million viewers an episode to its first season this summer, stars 7-year-old Alana Thompson and her family, which includes Sugar Bear, Pumpkin, Chubbs and Chickadee. The series plays like a sitcom, and the characters’ main role seems to be to make as many off-the-wall comments as possible.

Carla Pero, a longtime Orange County resident now living in Missouri, became a fan of Honey Boo Boo when Honey was a regular on “Toddlers & Tiaras,” the comic relief among “all the other perfect little kids.” Pero started following the Thompson clan on Facebook, where she learned they were helping out poor families in their hometown.

“None of us are perfect, and this family is far from it, but I prefer to look at what is inside a person, and learn from them, and strive to be like them,” Pero said. “I feel the show has gained popularity because of what the family stands for: all other poor families out there who hope to one day get ahead in life. … It helps us want to be better people.”

A viewer’s guide to redneck TV

Here are 10 of the most popular reality shows that focus on the rural South:

“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” (TLC) – The unquestioned queen of the redneck revolution, 7-year-old Alana Thompson and her family have become a huge hit just by being themselves, even though they don’t really do anything.

“Duck Dynasty” (A&E) – The Robertson family made a small fortune manufacturing duck calls, but they still enjoy hunting frogs in the swamps of Louisiana and growing enormous beards – the guys, anyway.

“Swamp People” (History) – The Godfather of redneck series (it debuted in 2010) features a group of Louisiana alligator hunters as they negotiate the annual 30-day gator-hunting season.

“Cajun Pawn Stars” (History) – With Cajuns and pawnbrokers two of the hottest topics in reality TV, this show is a no-brainer – in more ways than one.

“Redneck Island” (CMT) – “Survivor” knockoffs generally fail, but this hillbilly version seems to be succeeding in its second season. Pro wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin hosts.

“Hillbilly Handfishin'” (Animal Planet) – City folk come to Oklahoma to try this redneck sport, which involves wading into a mudhole to capture a catfish by sticking your forearm down its throat. Really.

“Bayou Billionaires” (CMT) – The Dowden family recently learned they live on a massive natural gas deposit and are suddenly reaping royalty checks. The real “Beverly Hillbillies” – except they stayed in Shreveport.

“Moonshiners” (Discovery) – The guys in this show are pretty much living backwoods clichés. It’s like “Dukes of Hazzard” without the General Lee, Catherine Bach or nearly so many teeth.

“Big Shrimpin'” (History) – Take the ultra-popular “Deadliest Catch” and move it to the Gulf, and you have “Big Shrimpin’.” Three boat crews compete for crustaceans and comprehensibility.

“Rocket City Redecks” (National Geographic) – The anti-redneck redneck show combines “Mythbusters” with “Moonshiners.” These rednecks are engineers, and a couple even have PhDs.

–  Michael Hewitt / The Orange County Register