After only a little more than a year at the controls of the channel formerly known as H2, hipster entertainment network Viceland has produced what might be the most fascinating thing on television. Remember the sheer horror when the rest of the country first discovered Jersey Shore back in 2009? The what-am-I-looking-at-and-why-can’t-I-look-away sense of shock and wonder? That rare feeling has returned, courtesy of the new docuseries Jungletown, airing Tuesdays at 10pm.
In the mountainous jungles of Panama, a Bieber-bobbed young real estate developer once dreamed of selling lavish ranchos to wealthy American expats. The Great Recession put an end to that dream, but inspired in him a cunning new plan. Instead of an “if you build it, they will come” approach, founder and CEO Jimmy Stice devised an alternative strategy to see his fiscal dream realized: if they come to Kalu Yala, they will build it for you.
“They” are mostly disillusioned degree earners willing to pay $5,000 apiece to experience a 10-week internship in both the jungle and the field of their choosing. Charitably, they are eco-conscious explorers seeking an unspoiled frontier far from the developed world; callously, they are clueless indigo children who could make average viewers root for mosquitos. In addition to their hiking poles and didgeridoos (no, really), they bring with them impossible ideals, questionable experience, and many dietary restrictions.
With his Pied Piper tune (or, potentially, blatant misrepresentation), Jimmy has recruited this small army of collegey colonists to build his Kalu Yala empire, aided by a faculty of 40 with two doctoral degrees among them. While Jimmy sips wine with investors, interns take surfing and machete lessons from their instructors, all in an effort to create the world’s most sustainable town. As one intern puts it, “I came here to learn how to be earth-sustainable, farm to table, sh*tting into a bucket that we put on a plant that grows and then we eat. I don’t know.” The series contains several other hazy musings on a host of half-heard TED Talks, but it seems inevitable that a future episode will offer some refresher on the spread of hookworm.
It would be simple to interpret Jungletown as an exposé of a doomed, for-profit hippie cult founded by a ruthless conman, probably because that assessment holds more than a kernel of truth. However, if Jimmy Stice had lured more than 100 young Americans to the jungle for an as yet unrevealed nefarious purpose, then Anderson Cooper would have packed his tight t-shirt to report live from the scene of the mass suicide / guerilla standoff / viral outbreak. Because no such sweaty news reports have aired in the months since filming wrapped, presumably this season will remain relatively tame. But each of those possibilities feels just a parrot squawk and a rustle of underbrush away from becoming the sudden new reality for the subjects of this docuseries. Jungletown resembles an unscripted Walking Dead for its ability to ratchet up the tension an an instant.
For fans of reality dramas, this state of perpetual pseudo-crisis might not appear particularly novel, but Jungletown demonstrates the technique before an audience that typically eschews reality programming (or claims to). Despite its ostensible status as a Williamsburg-approved documentary, Jungletown possesses all the traits of any great guilty pleasure: disproportionate sobbing, threats of leaving, and the celebration of unchecked narcissism. As one departing Kalu Yala resident reveals, “[T]he reality is it’s a bunch of young people trapped in a small jungle space in the middle of the harshest season of the year.” Add in some of the
moonshine artisanal rum from Kalu Yala’s resident distiller and Viceland will have the tried and true recipe for amazing television.
Watch new episodes of Jungletown on Tuesdays at 10pm ET on VICELAND.