Recently the Disney Channel in America premiered their new teen sitcom Bunk’d, a spin off of their hit show Jessie, set in a summer camp. This isn’t the first time Disney has invested in a show about summer camps, though. In 1998, they carved out their own version of Real World which focused on teenagers in various summer camps around the country. Bug Juice is one of the more interesting and unique reality shows to come out of late 90s, as it focuses primarily on the dynamic that is built from children of all races and classes attending sleep away camp for the summer and how they interact with one another.
As is the case with most social experiments of this ilk, Bug Juice begins as a show mixing different people and asking them to socialize in a confined space, but soon becomes a look at human nature itself. Though much of the content is edited for the sake of a ‘G’ rating (there’s heavy implications of swearing throughout the show), it’s interesting to see how the social dynamic plays out. People form their own cliques, they learn to ostracize and alienate the weaker and or more insignificant individuals, and romances are soon formed. Some of the best moments on the show involve summer romances and how hard it is to be rejected.
Bug Juice doesn’t get talked about a lot on the Disney Channel these days, but for its format it’s very much ahead of its time, and allows a platform for audiences to see how younger kids from every walks of life take on summer camp and how they feel being so far away from home. Surprisingly, the series manages to get better and better with each new season as the production crew discovers some interesting individuals to spotlight their experiences with. In fact, the series lasted three seasons, with every season focused on a new summer camp and a brand new cast. Season 1 focuses on “Camp Waziyatah,” Season 2 sets down on “Brush Ranch,” and Season 3 lands on “Camp Highlander.”
Bug Juice really captures what it’s like being a teenager, growing up with the insecurities that come with socializing with new people, and how tough it can be to adapt to a new setting with other individuals that are still finding themselves as well. For most campers on the show Bug Juice becomes a journey of self discovery and realization where a lot of the campers learn to overcome some new fear or insecurity and it makes them better people.
What really makes this such an interesting show is that mid-way through every season, the cast changes. Every year at summer camp, campers either attend for four weeks or eight weeks, so the four week campers eventually have to leave and bid tearful goodbyes, setting the stage for new four week campers that arrive in a second session. This offers inadvertent tension and new storylines for the series, as the eight week campers have to quickly adjust to new people and hopefully try to bond with them the same way they bonded with previous bunk mates. It’s hard enough making friends in one setting, but having to start all over in such a small window creates a lot of conflict and tension. Thankfully, while the producers do film arguments and bickering, there are never any exploitative fist fights or shoving as there’s almost always an adult around to monitor the tension and assure that campers don’t end up in violent confrontations.
Bug Juice, which ran from 1998 to 2002, was definitely ahead of its time and should have lasted longer than three years given how ingrained reality television has become in today’s culture. It’s especially sad since the series really hit its stride during it’s third and final season, which is more focused and fascinating to watch. After it ended, the series was repeated in full until 2004. No episodes have been rebroadcast since then and, sadly, the series hasn’t been made available for purchase on DVD or Blu-Ray. You can occasionally find old episodes online, though.