BOSTON — Bug juice, yum. The kidlike appellation for a common summer-camp beverage (red, sticky, and sweet) is exactly the right title for the Disney Channel's new 18-part reality-TV series.
How exciting can 18 episodes about summer camp really be? As it turns out, very. "Bug Juice" (beginning Saturday with two half-hour episodes, 8:30-9:30 p.m.; regular airdate on Sundays) is fresh, charming, and fully engaging. It is meant for kids and parents to watch together. The young teens who agreed to do the show don't try to act; they are always themselves. So there is nothing smug or precious about the show.
There are 18 young subjects - boys and girls, black and white, upper, middle, and working-class, whose ages range from about 12 to 15. Their college-age counselors are just as intriguing as they help the kids adjust and comment on life at Camp Waziyatah in Waterford, Maine.
We see the teens getting ready for camp, talking about their parents, and taking off for the adventure. Some will miss their families; others adjust readily to the new environment.
Through sports, creative writing, theatrical productions, horseback riding, and campfire cookouts, the children learn about one another and share experiences. One girl cries on the phone to her mother, wanting to come home - a crisis that is not readily resolved, but a common problem at camp.
Rich Ross, himself a documentary filmmaker and senior vice president of programming and production at the Disney Channel, says kids like to see themselves reflected on TV as they really are. Before he arrived at the cable channel, there was no reality TV (documentaries about ordinary people, meant to capture "slice of life" situations and unpremeditated reactions) appropriate for children - only shows like "The Real World" on MTV and Fox's "Cops."
"And I thought, wouldn't it be a vital and interesting thing to talk to kids about themselves without being preachy and without talking down to them?" says Mr. Ross. The idea of filming kids at camp was "totally fresh. It's a place where for the first time kids are without their parents, and still heavily supervised."
The filmmakers met with campers who had specifically filled out applications to participate in the show.
"We wanted the kids to be comfortable," Ross says. "We turned off the camera whenever they wanted us to. Getting their trust was important to us. There were two film crews - a female crew in the girls' cabin, and a male crew in the boys'."
Ross found himself astonished at how different from one another all the kids were. "But, then, kids are all so different. It's just that sometimes we don't take the time to look. All these kids reacting to each other and the environment was amazing. One wants to be a photographer, one likes to throw pots, one got to ride horses for the first time. These kids, with various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds who have different interests and who make different choices ... have to work as a team, live in a bunk, and learn how to get along."
Says camper Kisha, "It's not about where you come from. It's about people caring; it's about showing respect and not being rude."
Ross sees "Bug Juice" as an opportunity to open parents' eyes and to nurture family discussion, as well as to entertain young teens.
"It's not appropriate for television to preach," he says. "But television can inspire."