'Jungletown': TV Review

Vice Jungletown - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Vice
Reality TV for people too cool to watch reality TV.

Think of Viceland's new unscripted series as 'Kid Nation' without Taylor around to tell you to 'Deal with it.'

Viceland's Jungletown is a reality show for people too cool to ever willingly watch a reality show, much less to admit publicly to watching a reality show.

So go ahead and pretend, Vice/Viceland demo, that Jungletown is artisanally produced, small-batch monogenerational community-building unscripted social experimentation or whatever nonsense makes you feel genre superiority.

Me, I'm just gonna come out and call Jungletown what it is: Kid Nation for grownups.

You remember Kid Nation, right? The CBS reality show — no genre pretensions here — about a group of children dumped in the New Mexico wilderness and asked to form an idealized society of governing and ethical interaction. The premise was that the purity of the pre-indoctrinated child mind would lead to breakthroughs in decency or equality. Instead, a very good series full of big ideas was pilloried as a show in which unsupervised kids drank bleach and the breakthrough star was an entitled brat who instructed people to "Deal with it!" as she imposed her will on less assertive underlings.

If you took those exact kid-testants from Kid Nation, a decade older and perhaps wiser, and deposited them in the jungle of Panama, removed the incentives of periodic gold stars and taught them a wealth of millennial buzzwords, the result would be Jungletown.

Produced and directed by Ondi Timoner (Dig!), Jungletown is the story of Kalu Yala, either "the world's greatest sustainable modern town" or an exploitative educational institute/experiment, founded by entrepreneur Jimmy Stice.

Stice bought 500 acres of Panamanian rain forest in 2008 hoping to flip it for big bucks, but the real estate market collapsed. Instead, he designed a town "to look for the best ways we can live in terms of compassionately treating each other in a global community."

Now, Kalu Yala is made up of 40-ish staffers and 100-ish interns. The interns are actually halfway between campers and students, paying $5,000 for a 10-week program with classes in subjects like agriculture, biology, design thinking, business and culinary arts. They're farming with human poop, killing the animals for their own meals, using PVC pipes to redirect a potable water supply, sleeping on air mattresses under corrugated tin roofs and rebelling against the world's great evils, like Monsanto and Donald Trump.

Timoner is a justifiably acclaimed documentary filmmaker and surely would want to call Jungletown "unscripted" or a "docudrama," but it's fundamentally structured as a reality show, albeit one without competitive aspects or the prospect of a winner, unless we assume that "the Earth" will be the winner should the show (and Kalu Yala) succeed.

We're brought into the world of Kalu Yala just as the new crop of interns arrives, which lets Timoner introduce as many of them as possible in the same manner something like Big Brother might introduce contestants. We see them at home. We're presented with several of their life stories and we hear their proud parents speculate about how this experience will help their kids and how their kids will help Kalu Yala. To all of their credit, nobody says they're not in this to make friends, but you sense that if the choice came down to "making friends" or "eliminating carbon footprint," most of these plucky youngsters would select the latter.

When it comes to both staffers and interns, Jungletown concentrates on the characters, including comedian-turned-dean Esteban, mad distiller Willie, sympathetically allergic Gianna, dangerously high-spirited Kitania and self-righteously progressive Jake. Nobody is eliminated, but the first and second episodes both build their arcs around staffers abruptly going home, and people are regularly threatening to quit when Kalu Yala doesn't live up to its promises of eco-consciousness or inclusivity. There are hints of romance and budding friendships and ample tears are shed.

And as with all good reality shows, Jungletown offers a villain in Jimmy Stice, a glad-handing, catchphrase-spewing cult leader who comes across as what might happen if Cappie from Greek or Dick Casablancas from Veronica Mars were put in charge of a town. Jimmy is hailed as a visionary and a genius, but while his charges are slogging through the muck, eating insufficient meals and grumbling, Jimmy's off at resorts giving ill-prepared speeches about living beautifully to fellow geniuses. I didn't buy anything Jimmy was selling, but I bet just as many watchers will be prepared the purchase an entire brass band from this jungle-dwelling Harold Hill.

Kalu Yala is a fascinating idea and the people who gravitate towards it have fascinating views of the world, but the first three episodes of Jungletown don't shy from what's problematic about the town. Stice and Kalu Yala are bringing in these interns, taking large amounts of their money and harvesting their ideas with little return. Because of the cost, diversity at Kalu Yala is also an odd thing. The interns mostly come from positions of privilege, and they come into an impoverished corner of the world as both pioneers and colonialists. They're also all smart enough that they feel their privilege and they feel concern about the White Savior complex that hovers over the entire endeavor.

Perhaps the most compelling thing about Jungletown was when I realized, watching the second episode, that the "characters" I was rooting for and liking most were exactly the sort of whining millennials that shows like Survivor have rendered insufferable in recent years. It's not a permanent redemption. Timoner is interested in the conflict and in the interns' sense of betrayal, but you can tell that the storytellers and the interns are still very much true believers at the end of the day. My own external skepticism is probably greater, but the show is designed to engage that skepticism, rather than deny it.

People willing to admit that they're viewers of reality TV will remember Fox's Utopia, a good concept for a TV series undone by horrible casting and perplexing rules. Everybody associated with Jungletown would probably love you to think this Viceland series is something more than a more sincere, committed version of Utopia, but I'm here to tell you about an interesting TV show and not to put lipstick on a pig, even if I assure you that this is a heritage breed pig, raised on organic grass on a sustainable farm. Jungletown is Viceland's Utopia or Kid Nation, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Viceland)