In the first episode of Jungletown, Jimmy Stice describes Kalu Yala, the sustainable town he’s attempting to build in the jungles of Panama, as a new “global village that’s researching how we can live beautifully.”
These are nice words to describe what’s happening as Stice’s staffers and interns focus on designing a fully functioning eco-conscious community, from the muddy ground up. But as this ten-episode Viceland docuseries progresses, it quickly becomes obvious that this endeavor is far less organized and much messier than that pleasant summary suggests. As is the case in pretty much every reality-based work of television, it’s the messes that make this show interesting.
At first, Jungletown, which debuts tonight at 10 on Viceland, seems like it’s going to be an uplifting Nat Geo–style documentary about idealistic young people coming together to prove that they can change the world for the better. We see men and women from all over the globe — St. Louis, Winnipeg, Glasgow, Buenos Aires — eagerly heading to this almost paradise to engage in Earth-friendly world building from multiple angles. Mostly in their 20s and predominantly white, they talk excitedly about “idea orgasms” and how they want to “go out and be what they want to be” instead of just buying stuff. But after a few days in Kalu Yala — where the staff is paid, but the interns pony up $5,000 for the privilege of learning and working for ten weeks while sleeping on inflatable mattresses under tin roofs — reality starts to assert itself.
Some start to wonder whether the community is truly following sustainable practices. (“You can’t talk about sustainability all day and eat Jif,” says one intern after jars of peanut butter are brought in to help feed the hungry masses.) Questions are raised about how the place is run and where the money is going. Some people wind up leaving because of depression, severe food allergies, or simply an inability to deal with living in such remote, primitive conditions. As someone whose most outdoorsy act involved walking by, without actually entering, an REI, I empathize with these individuals. All the departures also give the series a bit of a Survivor feel; in each episode, there’s a chance that someone will be eliminated, usually by personal choice.
With so many personalities in the mix, Jungletown doesn’t necessarily foster strong attachments to particular characters. The most fascinating figure in it is Stice, a floppy-haired, Trey Parker look-alike whose family has long been in the real-estate business. His investment in the Kalu Yala property seems to come from a sincere place, but his delegation of both the managerial and manual labor to others, along with his “corporate but totally casual Friday” vibe, make him seem shifty, too. The second episode, in which a mistrust of Stice is expressed by multiple interns, does a particularly savage job of cutting from the compound, where Kalu Yalans are licking every last morsel of farm-to-table food from their bowls, to footage of Stice, who’s traveled to Big Sky, Montana, for a conference and is stocking up on processed junk food and bottles of Cabernet.
“Even if you’re a villain in the conversation, that helps catalyze the conversation,” a woman tells Stice in a subsequent episode, while he’s still in Montana. He may not quite be the villain of the piece, but his motives are certainly the most complicated.
Of course, not all of Jungletown is about conflict. There are moments that depict the members of this community happily connecting with each other and, everyone being young, partying together, too. (Alcohol is provided by the sustainable distiller who resides on-site, of course.)
There may be a tendency to view this series as a docu-jab at millennials who have all kinds of lofty ideals but lack the fortitude and commitment required to see them to fruition. I see it as a reality check on what it takes to lives off the land, a prospect that resonates with many people who, like one Kalu Yala staffer, believe “the world’s kinda going to shit” and “might hit the fan pretty soon.” But building a town and, really, a society is incredibly difficult, even if you’re a young, hearty optimist with tons of energy.
It’s wonderful to strive to live sustainably and beautifully in a global village. But Jungletown makes sure to remind us that, while you’re trying to do that, life can still be a real bitch.