An American embarrassed: Zac Efron is down to learn in Netflix’s ‘Down To Earth’

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Grade: 3.5/5

Zac Efron has grown up. From his boyish angst in “High School Musical” to his teen idol charm in “Hairspray” to his confidently shredded figure in “Baywatch,” Efron’s physical transformations run parallel to the maturation of his fans. And in 2020, the 32-year-old actor embraces a new look complete with a rugged and grizzly beard, akin to Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant.” The similarities between Efron and DiCaprio, however, do not stop at the bristly beard. Just as DiCaprio has used his influence to raise awareness about climate change, Efron takes his shot at exploring climate-conscious policies, customary cuisine and sustainable living practices by traveling around the world in Netflix’s new series, “Down To Earth With Zac Efron.”

Fusing the legacies of David Attenborough and Anthony Bourdain, Efron creates a show totally different from its predecessors and clearly aware of its own image. Efron hosts “Down To Earth” alongside Darin Olien, an expert in wellness and the author of “SuperLife: The 5 Simple Fixes That Will Make You Healthy, Fit and Eternally Awesome.” As they travel between locations, Efron and Olien quip and tease each other, their playful, friendly rapport making “Down To Earth” fun. While the show seems absurd — a former heartthrob traveling the world to discuss environmentalism — “Down To Earth” makes sense because it isn’t burdened by pretension or derailed by frivolity. The show finds its anchor in the hosts’ earnest curiosity to learn about the planet. 

That’s not to say the show isn’t a bit ridiculous. “Down To Earth” reeks of bro culture, as if Efron and Olien have, for the first time, stepped outside an imaginary fraternity and into eco-activism. While interviewing a French expert donning a sharp suit, Efron sports a Hawaiian shirt. Elsewhere, the sincere awe at Iceland’s natural landscape is only slightly diluted when Efron thoughtfully remarks, “Trippy.” 

Still, there’s something amusing and endearing about Efron’s bro-ish stamp of approval as he watches steam turbines or eats from local sustainably sourced businesses. Throughout the show, Efron breaks down scientific phenomena with visuals and voice-overs to explain what viewers might have forgotten from high school science class.

“Down To Earth” attempts to educate a globally conscious perspective, but the ambition occasionally misfires. Some episodes dilute the experts’ insights to instead capture Efron and Olien’s amazed reactions or offer some joke that falls flat. Other moments stagger from a privilege blind spot and entirely miss the mark. The second episode begins with Efron, Olien and giddy guest Anna Kendrick sitting at a fancy French restaurant in West Hollywood. They are joined by Martin Riese, a “water sommelier,” (yes, you read that right) who shows them several waters with varying levels of mineral content as he debunks the health benefits of purified water. 

Watching a throng of privileged white people test different clean waters for “fun” feels, at best, tone-deaf, especially since America’s inability to provide drinkable water has primarily impacted poverty-stricken communities of color. Likewise, the episode about Costa Rica feels like televised tourism, as Efron and Olien generally speak to white hippies instead of Indigenous Costa Ricans.

The show steers toward an American audience, often juxtaposing the initiatives of other countries to those lacking or absent in the United States. “Down To Earth” offers optimistic and informative explanations about eco-friendly infrastructure to dislodge American hopelessness concerning the planet’s fate. It’s a program for the generation that grew up with Efron  — the generation inheriting a dying planet.

There’s a valid line of questioning here: What qualifies Zac Efron to host a travel show about sustainability? Why is climate change more approachable when Zac Efron talks about it? 

But ultimately, who cares? Yes, it’s strategic to cast a star whose fame arose from winning his viewers’ hearts, and yes, Efron is an effective tool for persuasion. At the end of the day, the show inspires people to care about an issue that, if left untreated, threatens to unravel the fabric of life as we know it. It provides an educational and entertaining journey along which viewers learn about sustainable practices with Efron and Olien. Fretting over Efron’s qualifications obscures the central message of “Down To Earth” — anyone can, and everyone must, make an effort to help the planet.

Contact Maya Thompson at [email protected].