When it comes to the Duggar family, the stars of TLC's massively popular 19 Kids and Counting franchise, it's easy to miss the forest for the trees. The Duggars have been mired in controversy for nearly a decade: In 2015, eldest son Josh Duggar admitted to molesting five girls, including four of his sisters, leading to the show's suspension; six years later, he was arrested on federal child pornography charges, at which point TLC canceled spinoff Jill & Jessa: Counting On. Understandably, Josh's conviction (he was sentenced to 12.5 months in prison in May 2022) has created a rift within the family, prompting some of the older siblings to speak out about the abuse they suffered, their fundamentalist upbringing, and the exploitative nature of the show.
But the Duggars' many scandals are only half the story. Understanding the family and the religious beliefs they espoused on their reality TV show requires placing them in a larger context — that of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a Christian organization that has widely been described as a cult. Prime Video's new docuseries Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets does just that, exposing the abuse inside the Duggar household alongside the epidemic of sexual assault, harassment, and exploitation within IBLP and its homeschooling program, the Advanced Training Institute (ATI).
To be sure, directors Julia Willoughby Nason (Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal) and Olivia Crist devote much of Shiny Happy People's four-episode runtime to the embattled Duggars. Jill Dillard, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar's fourth child, and her husband Derick Dillard sit for extensive interviews, and Jill speaks candidly about the experience of growing up on-camera and her family's faith. She admits she initially "didn't want to" participate in the docuseries, but felt compelled to share her truth. "There's a story that's going to be told," she says, "And I would rather be the one telling it than the tabloids and anybody else who can make up whatever they want."
While Jill, who was molested by Josh when they were children, declines to discuss the abuse or her parents' knowledge of it — "Nobody should have ever known about it, so I don't like talking about it," she says through tears — she's critical of how the scandal was handled. (In 2015, a police report from 2006 detailing sexual misconduct allegations against Josh was released; the report stated that the alleged incidents occurred in 2002-2003, when Josh was 14 to 15 years old.) She recalls feeling "obligated" to sit for an interview with Megyn Kelly, in which she and Jessa downplayed Josh's abuse, as her parents' PR team was determined to "get it to where TLC would be cool with moving forward" with 19 Kids despite the controversy. Derick likens the situation to a "suicide mission," explaining that the message was, "You're going to destroy yourself, but we need you to take the fall so that we can carry the show forward because the show cannot fail."
This wasn't the first time Jill and Derick, who were married on-camera in 2014, were "taken advantage of" by her father and TLC. They claim they didn't want to film the birth of their first child in 2015, but ultimately "lost" their battle with producers, who forced them to film diary camera footage in the hospital. Jill also says she "never received any payout" for her work on the show, as the network paid Jim Bob directly. When she and Derick were finally offered money from Jim Bob, it came with strings attached: Receiving the lump-sum payment, which Derick says was "very close to what minimum wage would be up to 18," required signing a lifelong production commitment with Jim Bob's company. The couple declined, and their relationship with TLC "came to an end at that time," says Derick. (The relationship also ended after Derick made transphobic comments about fellow network star Jazz Jennings, though Shiny Happy People's directors don't push him on this point.)
Jill adds that her family's Fundamentalist Baptist beliefs created an additional layer of "pressure," particularly after TLC canceled 19 Kids and announced a spinoff focused on the older siblings, Counting On. IBLP teaches that the father of the household is superior, and his wife and female children must obey him in every way. It was this "ingrained" lesson that led Jill to agree to the new show, even though she didn't want to participate.
"I felt like, if I said 'no,' and I'm not obeying my parents, then bad things are going to happen to me," she says. "IBLP and the teachings draw in people like my dad who want this control. It can foster this cult-like environment. I absolutely think people would be drawn to that."
Examining the "cult-like environment" that birthed the Duggars is where Shiny Happy People truly excels. Nason and Crist make a point of zooming out to chart the rise of IBLP leader Bill Gothard, who created a series of workshops about resolving conflict and raising strong children in the 1960s. Gothard's teachings caught on among Evangelical Christians, and over the next few decades, millions attended his seminars and brought his guidance back to their home churches. In emotional interviews, ex-IBLP members, journalists, and scholars chart Gothard's rise to power and explain why his teachings would appeal to people like the Duggars, who became "a recruiting tool" for IBLP and the poster children for Christian fundamentalism.
These interviews paint a harrowing picture of the organization the Duggars helped "legitimize" via their TV show. People who grew up in similar environments discuss being forced into child labor at ATI facilities, the "slut-shaming" taught in Gothard's homeschooling curriculum, the organization's strict rules about female dress and behavior, and the institution's refusal to address rampant abuse within its ranks. This overwhelming amount of information is key to contextualizing the Duggars' scandals. It explains why Josh never faced any consequences after the 2006 police report was filed (instead, he was sent to an ATI facility for troubled boys), and why Jill was so concerned that "bad things are going to happen" if she stepped out from under her father's control, as IBLP's teachings are predominantly fear- and shame-based. The docuseries' subjects even clarify aspects of the Duggars' personas that confounded viewers, like Michelle's "baby voice" and the children's meekness, traits that are emphasized in the IBLP program.
But this half of the show also makes plain that the Duggars are just the tip of the corrupt iceberg. In the final two episodes, women who were sexually harassed by Gothard share their stories, revealing a persistent pattern of grooming and abuse at the top of the organization. They detail the lengths Gothard went to cover it up, including developing a new teaching that made it "impermissible to gossip," creating a culture of silence that made it even more difficult for women to come forward with allegations.
In 2014, Gothard resigned as president of IBLP after new reports surfaced that he had harassed multiple girls; the following year, ex-IBLP members filed a civil lawsuit alleging he covered up sexual abuse of minors, but the case was dismissed due to the statute of limitations. This outcome, and the accounts shared in the docuseries, remind viewers that for every case that ends in a conviction, there are countless survivors still seeking justice or closure. As one former IBLP member says, "This is much bigger than the Duggars. There are a lot of other people who are doing the same thing who haven't been caught."
This sentiment drives the final episode, "Arrows Activated," which convincingly argues that the reality TV family is but a cog in a wheel determined to remake America into a Christian fundamentalist nation. This movement has already achieved some success, with former Rep. Madison Cawthorn winning a seat in Congress (and then losing his reelection bid after a scandal-plagued single term) and the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, Christian social media influencers spread fundamentalist teachings to a wider audience, normalizing these beliefs in the same way the Duggars did on TLC. In this sense, the Duggars aren't the end of the story, but the beginning: They may no longer be on TV, but their pernicious legacy lives on.
Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets premieres Friday, June 2 on Prime Video.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.
TOPICS: Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets, Amazon Prime Video, 19 Kids and Counting, Counting On, Derick Dillard, Jill Duggar Dillard, Jim Bob Duggar, Josh Duggar, Julia Willoughby Nason, Michelle Duggar, Olivia Crist, Institute in Basic Life Principles