Zac Efron wants to tell you how to live sustainably. You probably shouldn’t let him.
Last weekend, Netflix made the fantasy of every millennial woman who raised her hand too much in middle school a reality: Now, whenever we want to, we can watch Zac Efron listen with bated breath while a confident and qualified female scientist whispers facts about her chosen field in his ear.
It’s a gray afternoon in Iceland, and Sandra Snaebjörnsdottir, a geologist with a great bob, is telling Efron everything he needs to know about the country’s geothermal power system, which converts steam into electricity, 45 megawatts per turbine.
“45 megawatts!” Efron repeats admiringly, as if he — or any of us — actually know what this number means.
No, this isn’t fanfiction. It’s the first episode of “Down to Earth,” an eminently not down-to-earth reality show in which Efron acts as the unlikely docent of a worldwide sustainable living tour. If you are trying to move towards sustainability on an individual or societal level, this show — much of which takes place in unsustainable private vehicles hurtling across continents at a celebrity’s whim — is not for you. If you’re interested in watching a former teen heartthrob validate scientists and eat interesting things, read on.
In each episode of “Down to Earth,” Efron — best known for his “High School Musical” days playing Troy Bolton, the dreamboat torn between basketball and the entrancing prospect of joining a high school theater troupe — and wellness guru Darin Olien travel to a different country in search of “healthy and sustainable” practices to import into their own lives. (Olien wrote a book about superfoods with the word “awesome” in the title, which is really all you need to know about him.)
In Iceland, the duo learn to bake bread in the boiling hot sands near a hot spring, receive hot stone massages and eat what Efron calls “Viking food” at a farm-to-table restaurant. (Tragically, the show does not address what real Vikings might have thought about pureed organic rutabaga.) In France, they tour Paris’s public tap water system and visit a waterfall thought to contain healing properties, asking such crucial questions about water as “Are we getting enough of it?” and “What metaphysical properties does it have?” The first few episodes form a prolonged paean to Western European natural resource management — later episodes promise visits to other continents — as Efron and Olien observe local politicians uttering sentences never heard in America, like “We use this hot spring to power the entire village” and “Everyone can have free water in the streets, even homeless people.”
“Down to Earth” dishes out a hefty slice of humble pie to anyone who still somehow thinks America is leading the global pack in terms of public works. But it’s hard to imagine how these lessons will help Zac Efron — or his audience— live more sustainably in practice. At the end of the show, America is no more equipped with hot springs or the political buy-in to invest in major urban planning upgrades than it was at the outset.
In a way, the visits to eco-friendly restaurants and fair trade chocolate shops that punctuate each episode illustrate a cynical point that contrasts with the show’s sunny, wellness-oriented ethos: Most individuals can do relatively little more to live sustainably beyond changing the way they purchase certain non-essential goods. And that appraisal doesn’t even take into account the reality that for many, fair trade chocolate and farm-to-table eats are economically out of reach. The only skepticism about the wealth required to live out Efron’s vision of sustainability comes from actress Anna Kendrick, who makes a cameo during a visit to a Hollywood “water sommelier,” someone whose job it is to curate journeys through the world of mineral water — yes, really.
“I feel like a Kardashian!” Kendrick jokes as the sommelier introduces a svelte Slovenian spring water otherwise unavailable in America. At the end of the session, she poses the sommelier the show’s most pressing question: “Do you have a real job or a made-up job?”
Unless you, like a Kardashian, are seeking semi-sustainable inspiration for the luxury vacations you plan to take when international travel is once more possible in 2027, “Down to Earth” isn’t the self-help show you need right now. And we certainly won’t tell you it’s good for the environment. But as we slouch towards a fifth month spent at home, there is something soothing about watching a gracefully aging minor celebrity shake hands with people outside his immediate family against a series of stunning backdrops. Everyone deserves to indulge a fantasy now and again — if you skip the serious cinema and spend a weekend lazing through this, we won’t tell anyone.
Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected]