The first clip I saw of Down to Earth with Zac Efron was 20 seconds into a trailer I hadn’t been paying attention to. Efron, narrating over some stock footage of urban environments, says: “Food, water, and energy are all the main staples of modern life.” This caught my interest for all the wrong reasons. The statement is so benign and self-evident that I had to rewind and watch again to make sure I had heard correctly, and then I sat and questioned for a full two minutes what documentarian would possibly feel the need to tell me this. Is there some contingent of potential viewers that hadn’t previously thought food and water to be important? Why even add the qualifier, “modern”? All three are staples of all known life in the universe, let alone present-day human life. This may seem like I’m nit-picking one goofy line out of a whole series, taken from a trailer and not the main script, no less, but this is about the level of analysis demanded by all of Down to Earth, which in eight 45-minute episodes never manages to fully emerge from this hopelessly shallow pool.
Each episode starts off by briefly explaining the concept of the show: A few years ago Efron met Darin Olien, whom he introduces as a “guru of healthy living and superfoods,” and now the two are travelling around the world in search of “healthy, sustainable living solutions” to a variety of crises the Earth is facing. If I were to speculate about the show’s actual conception, I would say that either Efron was cynically cast in order to plaster his recognizable name and face all over an otherwise unexciting premise, or the opposite — Efron came on board for his own branding purposes to evolve from a serial romantic-comedy lead to someone worldly, conscious, and who really cares about the issues.
Either way, in practice, Efron immediately comes across as someone who isn’t particularly interested in the environment, or travel, or food, or the people he’s talking to, or anything, really. In the first episode, he asks a bewildered power plant employee how a turbine works. “Wow, cool,” he responds after it’s explained to him. Olien is not much better. His introduction also came with a plug for his book about “superfoods” (a label he applies haphazardly in the show to everything he comes across from apples and potatoes to chocolate). While he doesn’t explicitly advertise it for the rest of the show, there is no shaking the feeling that he is constantly advertising his distinct approach to healthy living, which apparently involves aligning your internal clock with the Earth’s magnetic field by going barefoot every time you arrive in a new country, quackery about the health benefits of negative ions, and casual conspiracies about chemicals in tap water, and which you can learn all about for only $14.99 on Google Books.
Down to Earth is not devoid of entertainment. The nature shots are beautiful, even if they are outmatched by the more dedicated nature documentaries available on Netflix, the food they eat is interesting, and the humour is consistently not awful. It isn’t entirely devoid of information either. Each episode correctly identifies a major global issue and conveys the basics of what a potential solution might be. Episode 2, on water treatment, is a standout for featuring a much-appreciated shout out to Paris’s public water system, which has completely eliminated private sector water distribution — an incredibly good idea that this review does not have room to discuss in detail.
For the most part, however, the premise of the show — that the hosts are discovering secret solutions to these global crises — is a complete farce. The information, however sound, won’t be new to anyone who remembers junior high. The first episode looks at geothermal energy — one of the most widely known (though admittedly under-implemented, accounting for only 0.5 per cent of the world’s electricity in 2018 according to the International Energy Agency) sources of renewable electricity across the world. Elsewhere there are grade school lessons on endangered animal conservation, seed vaults, and solar panels. You could glean almost all of the show’s content from the free pamphlets beside the front desk of your nearest national park administration office.
In fact, what few tidbits of the series you might actually find interesting have a relatively high chance of turning out to be insidious, pseudoscientific claims peddled by Olien or a number of the show’s guests. Insider compiled a list of such claims in an Aug. 2 article pointedly titled “All the problematic pseudoscience shared by Zac Efron’s health guru and guests in his new Netflix show ‘Down to Earth.’” There are others that are less insidious and more bizarre, such as when an apple orchard employee in Episode 5 (examining biodiversity in agriculture) casually mentions that the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” was popularized in order to discourage the consumption of apple cider. “The quote was used to convince you not to drink your apples, but to eat them instead,” he says. “No way,” Efron replies. How that was supposed to work, and for what purpose, is never explained.
In spite of this, Down to Earth is not ill-intentioned. At its core is a recognition of real problems, and the vague message that we should make changes to solve these problems. As for telling us what exactly these changes might be, the series falls very far short. If you want a better idea of what to do about things like loss of habitat, food and water shortages, or natural disasters, I would suggest you read just about any book on the subject.
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