#Bingeworthy: Capitalism, Sustainability, and Human Frailty on Viceland’s ‘Jungletown’

Jungletown chronicles a bunch of people so brimming with youth, passion, ideals, and good intentions that it’s sure to get ugly, and it does not disappoint, as its heady mix of The Real World and “Lord of the Flies” delivers all the drama and schadenfreude you can handle.

Twenty-five years after the premiere of The Real World, it’s amazing that people continue to allow their lives to be documented while they try to cohabitate with strangers. The latest victims of this bizarre pathology are the new batch of interns at Kalu Yala, a real-estate development in the Panamanian jungle that is striving to “build the world’s most sustainable modern town.” No doubt eager for publicity to attract investors, CEO Jimmy Stice allowed a film crew from Viceland into his “home” as he and a new group of interns try to build such a town from the ground up. Stice’s questionable judgement is our gain.

Stice is easily portrayed as the villain, almost too easily. He’s a young white guy from money who wears Nautica golf shirts, has an ex-girlfriend who calls champagne “shampers,” and is the developer and CEO of a multi-million dollar real estate project that abuts a biodiversity hotspot. As with any good reality show, Stice’s facial expressions are edited at times to show the utmost contempt or disdain for his interns.

And to be fair, some of his interns are worthy of his contempt and disdain. Among a group of 80 millennials who paid $5,000 for the privilege of sleeping in a hammock for three months while helping a millionaire build a town, a shocking number are resentful of the fact that Kalu Yala is not yet fully sustainable and that they paid  $5,000 for the privilege of sleeping in a hammock for three months while helping a millionaire build a town.

Throughout the series, a number of kids have to bail, forced out of the jungle by a variety of afflictions: gluten, depression, disillusionment, Jimmy…. In an interview that was filmed after the series wrapped, Stice told Vice founder Shane Smith that the class shown in Jungletown had the most dropouts in the project’s history. “I think the cameras boil the water, I don’t think they put anything in the pot,” Stice said of the possible effects of having the film crew there.

The kids do have some legitimate complaints, like their bewilderment that no one seems terribly concerned about all the soap being used to bathe and do laundry in the river, or the fact that one of their main sources of protein is Jif peanut butter. That said, when the community comes to slaughter a goat for a giant stew, about a half dozen of them immediately turn vegetarian. “If you can’t stomach it, then maybe you literally shouldn’t stomach it,” says chuckling farm manager Josue Munoz-Jimenez.

What seems to grate the most for the malcontents is that Kalu Yala is an unapologetically for-profit enterprise. Interns are constantly whinging about the fact they paid $5,000 to be there, and during one bitch session someone goes as far as to accuse Stice of using Kalu Yala to “evade taxes and launder money” based on nothing more than her dislike of the man. One can’t help but wonder if any of these kids watched Deadwood or considered all the truly awful things Stice could be doing with these 575 acres of verdant jungle.

But, again, Stice makes it easy for the show to present him as some sort of ruthless capitalist swine. At one point Stice is in a meeting with his righthand man, Esteban Gast, a former stand-up comedian turned dean of the institute, and the two of them start cackling like supervillains when Stice makes clear he will not refund a single dollar to two recent dropouts whom he dismisses as “children.” While his sentiment may have been totally legitimate, it’s a bad look. But who among us could handle the incessant scrutiny of a film camera?

Things get particularly heated during “Inspiration Week,” when the interns are given time off to go do their own thing, in what amounts to a mini-Rumspringa, as many of the kids opt to go clubbing in Panama City. Ironically, it’s while enjoying the comforts of city living that a group of them get their angriest, making you wonder just how committed they are to the Kalu Yala ethos. Surely there are better ways to save the planet than googling how to sue someone.

Under all the melodrama, posturing and entitlement, Jungletown presents a host of legitimately interesting questions about the accusations of colonialism, the place of capitalism in the modern world, sustainability, and a host of other sociopolitical concerns. The human frailty on display just makes it fun to watch.

Season 1 of Jungletown is available on-demand on Viceland.


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