Lately, our interest in religious cults seems to be peaking, and many have capitalized on this genre. From movies like Women Talking, the Netflix documentary Keep Sweet, Prey, and Obey, and FX’s terrifying Under the Banner of Heaven, about the true-life events of Brenda Lafferty, it is an endless row that keeps growing and growing. Amazon Prime’s Shiny Happy People is the latest to have been added to this list of horrifying yet addictive shows. As someone who lives on the other side of the world, I had never heard of 19 Kids and Counting, so maybe it was my oblivion that led to the complete and utter shock I felt right from the beginning of Shiny Happy People. For the uninitiated like myself or even as someone who has no understanding at all of fundamentalism, this show is easy to comprehend and gives a deep insight into the inner workings of the IBLP, or Institute of Basic Life Principles. What from the outside looks like a show about a family riddled with controversies and how they overcame them, is overwhelmingly stuffed with information like a sandwich you take a bite out of, and all the ingredients spill out. From child abuse to sexist upbringing to the nature of homeschooling and what its impacts are on adults, it’s a struggle to keep track of all that we learn in the mini-series.
Pandora’s box opened up when the oldest of the 19 Duggar children, Josh Duggar, was accused of possession of Child Sexual Abuse Material This investigation propelled an interest in the inner workings of not only the family that was embroiled in the scandal but also the entire institute as a whole. Before going further into the details of the show, I would suggest looking up the trigger warning to make sure it’s something you can handle because it is a lot. Directors Julia Willoughby Nason and Olivia Crist bring back to the screen the second Duggar child, Jill, whose career as a reality TV star didn’t stop in 2015 when 19 Kids and Counting got canceled but became even more invasive and daunting with a spin-off called Jill and Jessa Counting On. When Jill takes a seat in front of the camera, you immediately know something is terribly wrong here, and as she starts to reveal the intricate details, more members of the IBLP get added to the mix, and the story expands and gets bigger and bigger until it explodes. Episode 1 is primarily about the show 19 Kids and Counting and the Duggar couple, Jim Bob and Michelle. It pulls the curtains back slightly and lets some light in for us to get a sneak peek into some of the problematic things happening in the household. On TV screens across the world, they looked absolutely perfect. Slowly, we move on to why the family lives this lifestyle and how they happen to have 19 children. That’s when our eyes were opened to the truth about the IBLP and Bill Gothard. Umbrellas are for protection from the rain, people! It’s not a tool to be used in your propaganda for misogynistic ideologies under the name of God.
Episode 2 mostly shows us the teachings of Bill Gothard and how he built the empire that is IBLP and became a sort of messiah for the white conservative Christian population in America. What’s fascinating and frightening at the same time is one man’s grip on such a large group of people, as it is with all cult leaders, I suppose. But unlike other geographically limited cults, thanks to the Duggers and all things “advancing” in the world, Bill had the opportunity to go worldwide. Apart from seeing Bill’s IBLP grow, we slowly start to see the systemic abuse that is prevalent in this culture that promotes fear and shame in “good people.” Authority is the foundation of this cult, and only men have authority in any household. I type as the sourness in my mouth returns. In the second half of the series, we look into why the Duggar family had such a perfect appearance, what made the children so pleasant and meek, and how someone can take care of 19 of them. By the end of the series, we realize how all of this has been happening right under our noses. We learn about a new organization called the Joshua Generation, which is essentially an influencer cult that has taken over the internet. At the end of the day, it is clear as the sun in the sky that all of these leaders demand world domination and absolute power.
Shiny Happy People shatters the Duggar family image and makes sure that there is a foot in the door of information, so it can’t be closed permanently. The show as a whole is extremely gripping, apart from being informative—the perfect combination for a docu-drama. Although it’s not a true crime documentary, it gives similar gratification. At some point, it’s slightly overlong, even with the average 30-45 minute episodes, because of the digression into the IBLP, especially since the name is the Duggar family, and most people will be sitting down to see where they are now. If you’re one to devour documentaries like a bag of hot Cheetos, then this one is the hottest kind. Even with its minor flaws, I would highly recommend it if the subject matter is something you can handle. There is mention of child Sexual Abuse Material , sexual abuse, child sexual abuse, violence, and abuse in the series, as well as minimum profanity, no nudity, and sexual content. Apart from feeling extremely disturbed by the conservative patriarchal ideas of the family that were a worldwide phenomenon, we also see detailed experiences of victims straight out of IBLP headquarters. Disgust is a relevant response to the Shiny Happy People, and you may need to watch a Disney movie just to recover. Still, I would give Shiny Happy People: Dugger Family Secrets four out of five stars.