In 2004, the Duggars barreled into our pop-culture consciousness on the most ironically named network in cable television—The Learning Channel (TLC)—with 14 Children and Pregnant Again! Their popularity was so strong that a weekly series was issued: 17 Kids and Counting, which would become 18 Kids and Counting, and then 19 Kids and Counting. America couldn’t resist this ever-growing family.
The series ended in 2015 after the eldest son, Josh, admitted to molesting five girls, including some of his sisters. And in 2022, he was sentenced to over 12 years in prison for receiving and possessing child pornography. Amazon Prime’s Shiny Happy People, a three-part docuseries, charts the family’s rise and fall.
As followers of the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), established by the Rev. Bill Gothard, the Duggars were the movement’s most powerful evangelists. IBLP promotes large families, modest dress, a husband’s authority over his wife, and faith-based homeschooling. Former adherents to the IBLP have called the group a cult and Gothard a charlatan. Yet each week on TLC, the Duggars promoted their agenda, which satisfied a collective itch: Even the most ardent fans were puzzled at their style of dress and ultra-conservative religious fervor. But as Shiny Happy People illustrates, under the glassy façade is real trauma that cannot be neatly put away.
Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a psychologist and media expert, said our collective thirst to watch celebrities rise and fall is our modern-day gladiator games—and she isn’t wrong. We loved their ascent in popularity; and with collective bloodlust we relished their undoing. The series has as much to say about the fans as it does about the family.
But it asks relevant questions as well: Is religious freedom more important than those harmed by religious leaders? What happens when spirituality spills over into coercive control? And perhaps most painfully: How complicit are we who give unsavory people a platform?
Shiny Happy People is no tabloid exposé of a family in freefall, but a powerful look at moral injury and healing from it.
The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin
Gwen Shamblin preached weight management through religious zeal. Her diet plan in the late 1990s and early 2000s was so successful, in fact, that it spawned best-selling books and helped build a church that Shamblin ran—Remnant Fellowship. But several apostates of the church claimed emotional and physical abuse, bringing the diet fad and its founder into question.
Produced and directed with confidence by Marina Zenovich, The Way Down plunges viewers into a wild world of scandal, religion, and weight loss. The most fascinating and elusive figure in the documentary is Shamblin herself, who tragically died in a plane crash in 2021. Was she a Moses-like figure leading her people out of obesity or a pied piper for the gullible? You be the judge.