Serious Jungle

Sunday, January 12, 2003 by

Currently being honoured with its second repeat run on terrestrial TV in as many weeks, Serious Jungle is resounding testament to the resilience and potential of reality television.

Eight young teenagers have been flown off to live and work at a nature reserve in deepest Borneo. Two experienced mentors supervise their day to day routine, setting them challenges, overseeing their welfare and preparing them for their big task: to build a new feeding centre for a bunch of orphan orangutans which are about to be returned to the wild.

This altruistic mission helps to give the whole enterprise a sense of being more than just watching a bunch of kids pissing about in a rainforest; but it’s how the demands of the former and the consequences of the latter collide that gives Serious Jungle its substance, and which makes it consistently high-class, stimulating television.

Much of the first programme in the series was taken up charting the rather repetitive and unappealing process of selecting the lucky eight, with much emphasis being placed rather earnestly on getting the composition of the group just right. The reason for such lengthy coverage, however, became instantly clear in this second episode, as almost within seconds of landing in Borneo the team’s contrasting personalities tumbled onto the screen and instantly the show was alive with an all-too familiar maelstrom of adolescent emotions.

“I’m sweating already and I’ve not even done anything yet,” moaned Daniel, the youngest of the group, having barely set foot out of the airport. Picked for possessing a demeanour utterly ill suited for any time away from modern living, he’s already stamped his mark on the programme by punctuating the action with regular and surprisingly dramatic outbursts of tears. Precocious yet vulnerable, it was no surprise to find the rest of the group heading for the special video diary booth within hours to single him out for abuse, despite the fact that all he’d really done so far was charge around a lot and accidentally scratch a CD.

Daniel’s innocent abroad behaviour contrasts pointedly with the most articulate but also the most neurotic of the group, Hannah. Having already suffered numerous breakdowns over the smallest of incidents back in England, it was no surprise to find her also being quick to commandeer the video booth. “This is awful,” she sniffed, half an hour into the group’s first evening together. “I have never been so unhappy in my entire life. I can’t be in an enclosed space with these people.” Naturally the source of all her discontent was not the prospect of treading on a snake or getting bitten by a scorpion but, of course, the fact she felt everyone else was better looking than her. “I feel threatened by Imogen and Laura,” she notified us, “because they are so much more attractive, happy, upbeat and well-liked than I am.” She signed off brilliantly by presuming that the others were already dubbing her: “Stupid unfit fat city girl.”

Where this kind of emotional free-for-all and hurling of insults differs from that so often in evidence on other reality TV projects is in its conspicuous mix of the candid with the utterly trivial. The essential charm and innocence of the team’s experiences – the fact a bit of playground gossip is treated with just as much importance as making a hammock – both validates the whole programme while showing it up for what it is. No pretence, no high ideals; you’re just watching a no frills encounter between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

So unlike the tedious and often insincere outpourings and backstabbings that seem to unfold when TV places a group of young adults in this kind of situation (witness Survivor or Eden), seeing these kids let rip at each other in this most unlikely and inappropriate of locations is utterly absorbing. Here are people free of the kind baggage (marriages, families, career plans) that tends to start cluttering up and undermining these experiments when older participants are involved. What envy, rivalry, fear and romance there is streams out in the open almost instantly; moreover, with everyone’s hormones rather gruesomely raging, what manipulation that goes on is of an amusingly blatant kind, and executed in the most clumsy and direct manner possible. This is the turbulent world of growing up captured in all its grubby, winsome, pitifully honest detail, and it should be no other way.

As the episode continued, more foibles and fascinations emerged and began to clash with each other. Luke’s obsession with insects – “Everyone swallows eight spiders in their lifetime, and I don’t want a tarantula to be one of mine” – was met with an excellent put down: “I’ve heard of some silly things in my time, but that takes the biscuit!” There’s also Larry, a self-consciously laidback charmer who tries to affect an air of cool assurance when faced with a crisis, but who is constantly and utterly undermined by his horrible fluffy half-moustache.

No doubt in order to play on these characteristics, the two mentors initiated a pairing system, ostensibly so that each of the group had someone to turn to and to look out for. Obviously Hannah and Imogen were lumped together (“I just burst into tears. I was feeling so insecure.”), as were Daniel and Larry. The results were predictable but amusing, especially as to underline the point of the exercise each pair had to spend several hours tied together at the wrist. This resulted in Daniel spilling a jar of iodine all over his hand, blubbing a bit more, and whimpering to the mentors about his now yellow-stained fingers. “Will it wash out of my clothes?” he asked. “I think that’s the least of your problems,” came their terse retort. He then set off on another moan about how tired he was, only to interrupt himself by letting out an enormous fart; while later his offer to be the first to clean out the makeshift toilet prompted the unequivocal response from the others, “He must be mental.”

The team are to spend their first few days abroad housed in a special outdoor training centre, but the way everyone seemed to go to pieces at the prospect of just one night under canvas testified to the amount of trauma likely to come later in the series when they move into the jungle for good. More intriguingly there has already been talk of people being attracted to each other, with Imogen especially being singled out as an object of competing lust amongst the boys. As was seen on 2001′s superb DIY TV, put a bunch of kids in any kind of context anywhere and they’ll eventually end up talking about who fancies whom.

We’re only a few weeks into the new year but already the media has busied itself cooking up yet more anti-BBC tirades, while embittered ex-employees Jimmy Young and Jonathan Dimbleby have eagerly passed undignified judgements on why the Corporation is heading for failure (the implication being because they’re not working for it anymore). Such pastimes, trotted out with relentless regularity, seem to increasingly find a willing accomplice in the continued presence of reality TV in the schedules.

In truth, giving reality TV a kicking just because of what it is denotes a way of thinking akin to saying the news should be axed because you don’t like what’s on it. Serious Jungle confirms how it’s the correct application of the components of reality television, not the notion itself, which is what separates fresh, exciting viewing from botched plunderings of previous programmes (Popstars: The Rivals) or something cannily conceived but inconsistently executed (Fame Academy). Off the evidence of Serious Jungle, this most controversial of all genres, regularly lambasted for being so base and obvious, is in rude health. And best of all, there’s a sequel on the way: Serious Desert.


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