A docuseries about the Bill Gothard religious empire and its influence on reality TV’s Duggar family has reportedly become the “biggest docuseries debut ever” for global streaming platform Amazon Prime Video.
Last week, Variety reported that Shiny Happy People, which unpacks the controversial teachings of Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), “had the biggest debut of any documentary series” on Amazon’s streaming service. “It’s been multiples higher than what we anticipated,” said Vernon Sanders, Amazon Studios’ head of television.
The four-part series reveals how Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, homeschooling parents of 19 children, epitomized the strict fundamentalist teachings of IBLP, which was founded by Gothard in 1961. With extensive archive footage and interviews, the docuseries tracks the rise and fall of the Duggars’ TLC-produced reality TV show 19 Kids & Counting. It also documents the alleged physical, spiritual, and sexual abuse at IBLP programs over decades.
In a statement to The Roys Report (TRR), Cori Shepherd Stern, executive producer of Shiny Happy People, said the “record-setting” response to the series “isn’t just voyeurism.” It’s a reckoning of “basic beliefs (that) permeated our culture, far beyond IBLP and Gothard,” she said.
Stern added: “I think so many people are re-evaluating how they were raised, questioning some things that were incredibly harmful, but were just the air we breathed and the water we swam in.”
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Following allegations of sexual abuse in 2014, Gothard resigned from IBLP. At one point, in footage seen in the docuseries, he was forcibly removed from an IBLP gathering. A year later, several victims of Gothard’s alleged sexual abuse filed a civil lawsuit against him. But the women voluntarily dismissed the suit in 2018, citing the statute of limitations and other factors.
In a statement, IBLP called the docuseries “misleading and untruthful” and claimed that it “mocks that which is good and moral in the most sensationalized way possible.”
Shiny Happy People features several alleged victims of IBLP programs who share their stories firsthand. Expert voices in the series include religious historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez, sociology professor Danielle Lindemann, journalist and pastor Joshua Pease, and attorney Alex Harris.
Duggar Family Secrets
The series features Jill Dillard (formerly Jill Duggar), the fourth-oldest Duggar sibling, alongside her husband, Derick, in interviews that frame much of the narrative. The Duggars’ cousin, Amy Duggar King, once featured on the TLC reality show, also provides insights. So does her husband, Dillon, and past Duggar family confidantes, Jim and Bobye Holt.
In the series, Dillard disclosed that she and her sister, Jessa, were pressured by their parents in 2015 to go on-camera with then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly and defend their brother, Josh Duggar. Just weeks earlier, news reports had revealed that Josh had sexually abused his sisters years prior.
Last May, Josh Duggar was sentenced to 12 years in prison for downloading and possessing child pornography, a scandal the docuseries recounts in detail.
Dillard also revealed that her father, Jim Bob Duggar, had misled her into signing a years-long contract with TLC. “My dad does control a lot of things in the family,” said Dillard in the docuseries. “Family relationships were already kinda rocky . . . Everything within the family dynamic has shifted, and not for the better.”
On June 1, in a blog post titled “A Note from Jim Bob and Michelle,” the Duggar parents stated the docuseries “is sad because in it we see the media and those with ill intentions hurting people we love.” Their statement referenced “damaged relationships” with “member(s) of our family,” but did not name their daughter, Jill, or her husband.
The couple added: “Like other families, ours too has experienced the joys and heartbreaks of life, just in a very public format. This ‘documentary’ paints so much and so many in a derogatory and sensationalized way because sadly that’s the direction of entertainment these days.”
Evangelical Voices Praise, Criticize the Series
The docuseries has been widely discussed in evangelical circles, with both praise and criticism.
Bible teacher and author Beth Moore posted multiple threads on Twitter about the series. She tweeted: “When I was a young mom, many of the peer families we knew were getting neck deep in (Bill Gothard) events & materials. Couldn’t do it. He made my skin crawl. For one thing, I don’t trust heavy duty fundies pushing & policing girls’ purity. That’s a NOPE. In my view, that’s not for protection. That’s for training predators and grooming prey.”
Similarly, Christa Brown, a prominent abuse survivor advocate, thanked the survivors and expert voices who contributed to the series. “It’s nominally about the Duggars but it’s really about the authoritarian abusive ideologies that have permeated broad swaths of evangelicalism, wounded countless people, and undermined our democracy,” Brown tweeted.
In a lengthy review with vignettes from her own childhood, Alissa Wilkinson, film critic and former journalism instructor at The King’s College in New York City, called the series ultimately redemptive. She noted that it spotlights “ex-members who got out, who managed to find the strength and the help to leave an abusive situation and move into the light.”
However, some reviewers have critiqued the presentation.
In World Magazine, Ericka Andersen wrote: “In Shiny Happy People, notions of Biblical submission, pro-life advocacy, and Christian homeschooling are portrayed as intrinsically toxic. Viewers could easily walk away believing that a Biblical worldview inherently leads to misogyny, violence, and abuse.”
And MinistryWatch president Warren Cole Smith stated that series producers “either ignored or edited out reasonable voices that could have added much insight and nuance to this story.” He noted that Christianity Today has published over 100 articles of “important and appropriately critical coverage of Gothard as early as the 1980s.”
Executive producer Stern said she has seen firsthand that the series can feel “confronting” to believers. Stern said: “Members of my own family—who are quite evangelical but also supportive of me—had to sit through this and constantly try to separate their own instinctive protectiveness of their beliefs from their enormous compassion for the survivors in this documentary.”
Several viewers including Smith observed the last episode seemed to veer off topic, as it introduced a related but separate movement of homeschooling leaders called “the Joshua Generation,” who have allegedly sought to elevate conservative Christians into political and societal power.
Stern acknowledged, including via Twitter, that she “agreed” the fourth episode perhaps was lacking and had “a lot to try to unpack.” She referenced a tweet thread by Alex Harris, an attorney and Christian author featured in the series, as providing more context for episode four.
The producer also said the docuseries critiques the Gothard-written curriculum which has led to “educational negligence” and not all homeschooling. “There is no doubt that you can get a phenomenal education in a homeschool environment,” said Stern.
Christian podcast host and author Sheila Wray Gregoire tweeted in defense of the docuseries, saying, “I’m hearing so many criticize (the series), saying, ‘They didn’t do a good job of distinguishing IBLP from the rest of evangelicalism.’ But that wasn’t their job.”
Gregoire concluded: “If we want a better witness to the world, let’s stop complaining about documentaries, and let’s start cleaning up our own act.”
A Story Yet to Be Fully Told
Another now-married Duggar sister, Jinger Vuolo, told People Magazine that she declined to be interviewed for the docuseries but was “excited to hear what (Jill) has to say.”
Vuolo released a book in January, Becoming Free Indeed, which has been praised for its honesty in calling out the teachings of Gothard and IBLP practices. Attorney Harris endorsed the book in reviewing the docuseries, writing: “Shiny Happy People brings Gothard’s false teachings to life. Vuolo’s book provides hope that true gospel faith can rise from the ashes.”
In September, Dillard has her own memoir set to release titled Counting the Cost which will reveal “the secrets, manipulation, and intimidation behind the show that remained hidden,” according to the publisher’s summary. It is also described as “a remarkable story of the power of the truth” with principles for “how to find healing through honesty.”
Producer Stern hinted that “additional episodes” of the series may be in the future. She said their team has met several people including Harris “raised in dominionism but who’ve come to quite a different place, while still firmly embracing their faith and love of the Gospel.”
She added: “We’d like to explore that journey in greater detail.”
Separate Gothard Documentary in the Works
Ten women, who filed a civil lawsuit against Gothard documenting his alleged abuses, are referenced in Shiny Happy People. Only one of them, Emily Elizabeth Anderson, who had also shared part of her story in a May 2021 episode of The Roys Report podcast, participated in the documentary.
I was blown away by Emily Elizabeth Anderson in Shiny Happy People and recalled her sharing her story on @reachjulieroys podcast. She took her power and her voice back. She is so beautifully courageous.https://t.co/wKTdUmpamC
— Kristie (Kathy/Jane Doe 2) (@janefortruth) June 5, 2023
One of Gothard’s alleged victims who didn’t participate in the documentary, Rachel Frost, released a statement Sunday noting her participation in a project titled Until the Truth: Life After Abuse. The intimate documentary from filmmakers Sean Dimond and John Harrison is billed as an exploration of the stories of the women who were harmed by Bill Gothard and took him to court.
Set to include abuse survivors and expert voices, including attorney Boz Tchividjian and Du Mez, Until the Truth is currently crowdfunding to complete production. “The damage from this man and organization is deep and wide and there were many stories needing—aching—to be told,” wrote Frost.
She concluded: “The journey is messy. The trauma responses are real. The freedom and joy on the other side is palpable.”
Shiny Happy People is available on Prime Video (the first two episodes may be watched free with ads, without a subscription). Until the Truth is currently in production.
Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd writes on faith, culture, and public policy for several media outlets. He and his family live in the Washington, D.C. area.