These days, watching Netflix’s Down to Earth with Zac Efron is like that moment in a post-apocalyptic movie when the survivors find the last can of Coke or wistfully listen to an old pop standard on a wobbly gramophone. There’s just something about seeing an exuberant Baywatch star trotting the globe to try stone massages that feels like a relic from a forgotten past. A time when we could travel from country to country, greeting new faces with our only concerns being the betterment of a shared future. It’s clear from the show’s focus on clean living and environmentalism that Efron’s intentions are good. I guess the true irony is that the world he’s trying to save no longer resembles our own.
Episode 1: Iceland
Our premiere episode of Down to Earth finds Efron focusing his attention on the Nordic island of Iceland. We are soon introduced to his sidekick and defacto co-host, Darin Olien. Darin looks like Scott Bakula from Quantum Leap, but instead of “striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home,” he is heckling Zac Efron about his facial hair.
As a bit of background on Darin, he is described as a health guru and is probably 10-15 years older than Zac. Despite his “Dad’s friend at the cookout” energy, I assume that Darin will serve as the bookish, grounded foil to Zac’s enthusiastic optimism.
That is not the case.
Greeting a real knit sweater of a man who goes by Siggy, our hosts learn that the surrounding villages are powered solely by renewable energy from waterfalls and volcanoes. Naturally, this point is highlighted by having Zac prepare rye bread and boiled eggs in a nearby hot spring.
It soon becomes apparent that Zac and Darin don’t have much on-screen chemistry. They just exchange a volley of “Wows” and “Yeps” while Siggy pulls more breakfast foods from the soil.
Siggy explains that his village heats their sidewalks throughout the winter to avoid having to shovel snow. This is an incredible flex from a man who perfectly personifies the Danish concept of hygge.
Moving on, Zac and Darin then make their way to one of four geothermal plants in Iceland, which Zac describes as “sick.” He is majorly stoked.
Explaining how the plant accesses thermal energy deep beneath the planet’s surface, Zac describes the “bore holes” drilled through the earth’s crust. In lieu of any actual humor thus far in the episode, Zac repeating the term “bore holes” is sort of a comedic oasis.
Despite the explanation of how this incredible facility creates clean, renewable energy, the most compelling revelation in this scene is that Zac’s dad works at a nuclear power plant. While this is unexpected on my end, I’m sure Father Efron’s coworkers at the plant are likewise surprised to hear that his son will be portraying Ted Bundy and Fred from Scooby Doo in nearly back-to-back roles.
In a brief confounding moment, Zac notices a small display case in the powerplant hallway containing an ornamental samurai helmet. “Sweet,” he says in voice over. “I wonder why that’s there?”
Good question. That’s a very good question that probably has an equally interesting answer for viewers of your show. You’ve really teed this one up! Time to knock it out of the park!
“I guess I’ll never know,” Zac says as the scene ends.
Ask! It’s your show.
You traveled all the way to Iceland and ate eggs from the boiling earth. No need to be bashful now. Strap on your captain’s hat and take the helm of your own show.
What this scene indicates is that the show’s producers thought that the samurai display was so interesting that it couldn’t hit the cutting room floor, but found no way to work around the fact that no one asked why the hell it was there. Incredible.
It’s clear that the aim of this show is somewhat altruistic as Zac repeatedly pleads with his audience to consider the dire need to adapt our lifestyles and adopt more ecologically sound practices on a global level.
The only problem is scenes such as these are intercut with Zac and Darin going to a Viking spa or an artisanal chocolate shop. This somewhat undermines the dire realization that we are killing the planet, but I guess chocolate and massages are useful for relieving the tension one feels when they realize the end times are near. Plus: no one in their right mind would ever begrudge a celebrity from getting free travel, lodging, and artisanal cuisine if they remind us from time to time about ice caps and various other existential minutiae.
During their visit to the chocolatier, Zac manages to make about five Willy Wonka references in a row before being given the opportunity to craft his own bar. He decides to take the aggressive approach and use every available topping like it’s last call at a nacho bar.
After ruining a substantial amount of fine chocolates, Zac and Darin visit one of Iceland’s most popular natural wonders. They are immediately met by a local park worker, who does his best to prevent everyone from stepping off the side of a cliff. The show then goes out of its way to humiliate this park employee after he fails to answer the hosts’ questions.
Footage of this unnamed park ranger saying he doesn’t know how many people visit this waterfall each year are overlaid with voiceover of Zac saying “Uhhhh, OK.” Maybe the dude’s job is simply preventing onlookers from tumbling into the violent tides below. Let’s do our best to not harass the locals on a global streaming platform, guys.
Our next stop finds Zac and Darin visiting a hydroelectric plant to learn more about how force generates power. They likely took this information back to the waterfall to continue demeaning that park ranger.
While surveilling the caverns that sit under the plant, Zac compares it to “Val Kilmer’s bat cave.” So let’s stop here. He didn’t say Batman’s bat cave or simply the Bat Cave. No, Zac named a specific actor who portrayed Batman, but he went with Kilmer!?
Now, I loved Batman Forever and appreciate the work of Val Kilmer, but this is like if someone said, “Wow, this is like Brandon Routh’s Fortress of Solitude.” It’s just an odd connection to make.
Having broken my mind, Zac and Darin then visit one of Iceland’s finest restaurants, where I am sure they are being pranked. First, the chef serves a plate of leaves that he explains came from his backyard. Then, the second course consists of vegetables smoked in sheep shit, before the chef unveils a tartare made from a reindeer he killed and carried home on his own.
Now, I’m not saying this stoic Icelander gets off on making American celebrities eat his sheep feces and yard waste, while dragging reindeer corpses across the fjords. I’m just saying he seems like someone who is being tracked down by the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
And that’s episode one. You often hear the phrase “They should have sent a poet” used to indicate that a character on screen has been confronted with such profound, staggering beauty that they lack the capacity to truly communicate what they have experienced. In this case, maybe it’s best to let all the poets stay home where it’s safe, while Zac and Darin play the Circle Game next to some of the world’s greatest natural wonders.
Episode 2: France
The second episode gets off to an awkward start as the show’s crew manages to piss off the president of the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations. Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis is interrupted when someone needs to check Zac’s mic, so the good doctor replies by saying he doesn’t care if either one of them are famous as he walks away.
This is a really compelling way to start an episode of a documentary series. I remember one time I was interviewing Ken Burns as he prepared for a live presentation. As we were speaking before the show, he was repeatedly drowned out by the house speakers, which were blaring Pitbull. I think it’s smart for a show like this to acknowledge that things don’t always go so smoothly.
Looking forward, this episode focuses on water and humanity’s need for it. Suitably, the episode titled “France” begins in Los Angeles. Here Zac is joined by Anna Kendrick as they visit a water sommelier.
You may know Anna Kendrick from Pitch Perfect or her ongoing role in the Trolls cinematic universe. Here she plays the over enthusiastic water novice. I’m sure she’s simply trying to play up her excitement for the camera here, but really no one should ever be this animated about the concept of osmosis.
In a scene that is at the least tonedeaf and at the most completely offensive, our water sommelier insults the “highly chlorinated” tap water in West Hollywood, as if Americans in major cities aren’t being poisoned by their own drinking water. Surely, the people who made this episode know better. As Hitchcock would say, this possible oversight serves as the bomb under the table for the episode. As the audience, we’re on edge because we know it’s there. Now to see if those on screen can figure things out before it all blows up in their face.
The taste test begins with a “thick” Australian, which is compared to olive oil. After a hydrotour of Spain and the Mediterranean, we arrive at a water that is available to no one else in America and celebrated for its high metal content. This scene is now bordering on satire. I expect the next course to include Irish babies with a side of Soylent Green.
Moving on, Zac and Darin leave Anna to venture through the Chunnel (which is this episode’s comedic stand-in for “bore holes”) and they finally reach France. Upon arriving in a new country, Darin coaxes Zac into breaking the first rule we learned from Die Hard: Don’t remove your shoes upon reaching a new location.
Arriving in Paris, Zac explains that the city’s drinking water supply is operated by a public body. They meet with the elected official who oversees Paris’s water, and it’s great that the show is recognizing the city’s commitment to providing clean drinking water to all of its residents.
Also, Paris has public drinking fountains that flow with sparkling water that you can locate with an app. Now, I’m not trying to compare any countries to Mad Max’s parched wastelands choked with war rigs, but there’s a spectrum and it’s important to know where you sit.
Finally, we return to Lourdes and the case of the pissed off medical expert that began this episode. Again, this is a really compelling way to frame things. And it allows Darin to explain how he met Zac as a way to endear themselves to the good doctor.
The story goes that Zac heard Darin on a podcast a few years back.
That seems to be it. Fascinating.
And from there this very subpar friendship with creepy uncle energy really bloomed into the chemistry-free, on-screen marriage you see today.
Either way, Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis is ready to explain how he determines a “miraculous healing” as defined by the Catholic Church. This portion of the episode could really use more time because the doctor’s duties seem compelling. Defining himself as a man of science, he sees his role as disproving all medical justifications why a patient might shed their illness before it can even begin to be considered a true miracle.
This episode concludes at an actual sanctuary, which I guess highlights the best and worst of this show so far. There’s a (quantum?) disconnect to this show that finds it opening with a gourmet water tasting and closing on a holy fountain where people pray for the cure to their cancer.
But as I said at the beginning of this piece, we’re so madly removed from the world of Down to Earth with Zac Efron that you might as well view it as escapist fantasy. At least take the time to see beyond your own distancing.
Two episodes down and just six to go. I’m already starting to feel a sense of exhaustion set in from all this vicarious travel. It’s likely a matter of time before my writing starts to resemble a lost journal from the Donner Party and rescue teams discover “I Need a Vacation from this Vacation” carved into my apartment walls. But there remain questions to be answered.
What particular grunts and nods will Darin have for us next time? Will Zac reach peak lumbersexual? Only time will tell.
But don’t worry. I’m going in deep — bore hole deep — so you don’t have to. Pop over for my next segment: episodes 3 and 4, as Zac visits Costa Rica and Sardinia. Until then, in the words of global recognized water sommelier and regional acapella champion Anna Kendrick: keep it wet.
Down to Earth With Zac Efron: Episodes 3 & 4
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