Are you struggling to stomach The Handmaid's Tale? Are you in despair as you watch women suffer at the hands of a totalitarian regime that removes all of their rights and forces them to conceive babies for the ruling class?

Then I have just the salve you need.

TVNZ is heading to Gloriavale once again this month and - much like other documentaries in this popular series - they make the subjugation of women look like a total blast.

An online-only mini-series of short episodes, Gloriavale: The Return revisits this controversial Christian community to see what its now-famous residents, Dove Love, Angel Benjamin and Paul and Pearl Valor, have been up to.


It's been two years since we last checked in with the old gang, when Gloriavale: A Woman's Place became TVNZ 2's highest-rating show for 2016, even as it endured heavy criticism for the "soft" treatment documentary maker Amanda Evans was believed to be affording the group.

Some of the residents of Gloriavale.
Some of the residents of Gloriavale.

Both TVNZ and Evans obviously subscribe to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" theory when it comes to pulling in the ratings, because Gloriavale: The Return delivers a rose-tinted view of the isolated Haupiri settlement once again.

The episodes, which run for approximately five minutes each, have been created as small snapshots of life at Gloriavale, juxtaposed with what's going on in the rest of New Zealand. The first chapter is a literal snapshot, with community photographer Peter Righteous attempting to herd 350 people together for a group photo.

As Paul Valor explains to the camera, the photo is of all the people who wouldn't be here if the community allowed birth control of any kind, i.e. those who aren't the first or second born in their family (in a garbled reference to the fact the average Kiwi family usually has just two children).

The second episode, meanwhile, focuses on the Gloriavale wardrobe. It begins by telling us about how fashion-obsessed Kiwis are, before rightly admonishing the amount of textiles that end up in the country's landfills each year.

But, according to the documentary's ever-cheerful narrator, "one solution to our fashion obsession could be the Gloriavale wardrobe plan," where residents can fit all their clothes into just a couple of drawers.

We then cut to Angel Benjamin, who is showing off the famous blue Gloriavale dress. She tells us it's really practical, "because I can breastfeed out of it and it's versatile for when I'm pregnant, so it really caters for all my needs".

Just let that sink in for a moment.


Evans has previously defended her series of Gloriavale documentaries by saying she prefers to use a "non-judgmental, observational" style and it's moments like this where that style works. We don't need Evans and her team to spell out the suppression of women that's going on in this small corner of New Zealand, because the women themselves are happily telling us all about it.

Dove Love, a resident in the Gloriavale community.
Dove Love, a resident in the Gloriavale community.

But with allegations of forced marriages, unfair working conditions and sexual and physical abuse continuing to surround Gloriavale beyond the realms of this documentary, the overly upbeat feel of these mini-episodes is, frankly, bizarre.

The series has the look, feel and sound of a publicity video about the benefits of religious indoctrination and what jolly good fun it can be.

For example, following on from Valor's veiled reference to the supposed evils of contraception at the group photo session, the narrator chirpily breezes past that to note that "spotting people you know in this crowd is a bit like playing 'Where's Wally?' without the benefit of the red striped jersey".


Then there's the ham-fisted attempt to compare the rest of the country's rampant consumption with Gloriavale's modest approach to clothing. I'm all for taking a minimalistic approach to possessions, but not when that sentiment is sandwiched right next to a scene where a woman who has been raised to know nothing else enthuses about a dress that supposedly covers all of her needs (pregnancy and breastfeeding).

The impression that this new season is more Gloriavale-sanctioned promotional material dressed up as a documentary isn't at all helped by the move to a super-short format either.

Perhaps the thought was that a bite-sized episode would make the propaganda that much easier to swallow. It's not.

• Gloriavale: The Return is available to stream every Tuesday on TVNZ OnDemand.