09 Sep Zac Efron and Netflix’s Down to Earth: A Misrepresentation and a Failed Attempt at Environmental Education
By Molly Whitaker, Policy Consultant, CvCC
Netflix recently released a docuseries called Down to Earth, which explores different cultures across the globe and delves deeper into the ways in which people use the Earth and its resources. Just in case this series has not appeared on a list of recommended shows on your Netflix account, I’ll provide a brief summary. Zac Efron and his friend and super-food guru Darin Olien embark on the adventure of a lifetime, traveling to Iceland, France, Costa Rica and London in order to explore the different and unique ways in which each of these places has utilized a specific resource in ways that others may take inspiration.
At first glance, this show caught my eye, due to its worldly perspective on sustainability. However, upon further analysis, I realized that this show wasn’t all that it was chalked up to be. This docuseries had potential; two white men venturing to foreign places playing tourist… Oh wait… Now I see the problem. In my opinion, this show was doomed from the start. In the eyes of any viewer that has any sort of critical eye, this is simply another showcase of white men traveling to cultures that catch the eye of an American looking to “live simply” for a small period of time.
The fate of this show started when Zac Efron was chosen as its “star”. It’s extremely hard to take seriously someone who has previously starred in shows and movies that are completely unrelated to sustainability or any part of environmental advocacy. You might think that the addition of costar Olien would provide more of a “backbone” to the show, what with his health and wellness background, but this is unfortunately not the case. Olien is not the mature character that this show needed and instead contributes further to a lack of maturity displayed through the series. The camaraderie of the two, while it may allow for a less intimidating perspective on sustainability, gets in the way of any educational elements this show might have had going for itself. The two constantly make fun of things they encounter, making it all seem like some big joke. I can see what the producers may have been going for, making this show seem less intimidating and maybe more enjoyable than a classic documentary, but in my opinion, they failed to maintain the educational aspect that is crucial when labeling something as a docuseries.
In addition to providing viewers with a less-than-serious perspective on very real and important topics, the two stars are only able to experience so little of what makes each place unique. Due to both their limited stays in each place and their wealth, Efron and Olien are only able to experience the “best of the best” in each of these places, attending Michelin-starred restaurants in almost every location they visit in combination with ice and fire massages in Iceland and tasting different flavors of water, some which are so rare they would never be able to taste it again, in France.
Despite having created another tourist-based-experience docuseries, there was some good to come out of this show. There were moments in time that I was encapsulated by the subject matter of this show, and these were the moments that Efron and Olien were able to set aside their “bro” attitudes and take a more serious approach towards understanding these fascinating places and ways of life. They were also able to capture extended cuts of real people living in these ecosystems, which allowed for a more realistic perspective of these places, even if some of them appeared to be ex-pats. The show also hits many of the major contributors to climate change: energy production, food production, and water production, which allows the viewer to hone in on ways in which they can work to alter their consumption of these resources in order to help slow the threat of climate change.
Efron knew what he was doing when he got involved in this docuseries. His “clout”, for lack of a better word, allowed this show to become extremely popular in very little time, providing this series with a wide audience. However, this show continues to lack the maturity and seriousness of a classic documentary. Unfortunately, no matter how Efron tries to change peoples’ perspectives on his personality, they will almost always end up thinking about his muscly stature and his appearances in other shows and movies. It is not clear what his motives were in starring in this show, but a common phrase you can hear him say is “I have to get out of Hollywood man.” This really made me want to believe him and go along with everything he had preached and taught us about throughout the series, but I just couldn’t get past, well, his past. This is a common feeling towards media coverage attempting to represent something it has no business representing or becoming involved in. Zac Efron attempting to be someone who has the authority to report on environmental advocacy is the same thing as another white person deciding to report on an indigenous tribe, for example. That white person reporting on an indigenous tribe would get scrutinized heavily, yet Efron seems to be off the hook. Efron simply gets away with doing the same thing others might be reprimanded for because of his fame. People are too distracted by his presence in the series to think critically beyond the façade of his muscles and looks.