Netflix’s "Down to Earth with Zac Efron" offers unexpected inspiration for living in harmony with nature
  • “Down to Earth with Zac Efron” is an accessible and informative look at sustainable living
  • Show’s focus on what already exists, rather than hypotheticals, makes it inspirational
  • As coronavirus reignites the conversation about how sustainably our lives are designed, this show’s popularity could stir more interest in green tech and renewable energy.

This is not the first time I’ve been skeptical about a Zac Efron/Netflix venture. I’m a true crime junkie, so his turn as serial killer Ted Bundy in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” was a must-watch for me. Efron nailed Bundy’s dead eyes, but mostly I was distracted by the inexplicable choice made by the film’s producers to highlight his carved physique in what was supposed to be a true-to-history film about a murderer without noteworthy gym or protein shake habits. 

So when I heard that Efron was once again starring in a Netflix show about a topic I know way too much about — in this case, sustainable living — I felt that same mix of appreciation and serious doubt. “Down to Earth with Zac Efron” could easily be a tone-deaf Goop-style mess, where someone with millions of dollars lectures the audience about why they should spend $103 a month on a camel-milk delivery service. It could also be an empty vehicle for a shirtless Efron to look concerned while fully-clothed scientists tell him that climate change is bad. 

I am pleased — and pleasantly surprised! — to report that after binging “Down to Earth with Zac Efron” this weekend, the show is neither. Rather, it’s a delightful look at sustainability through a place-based lens, made engaging by the repartee between Efron and his co-host Darin Olien, a superfood expert and a partner at the green tech company Greenpath

In the show’s first episode, Efron and Olien head to Iceland to learn how the country came to be powered by 100% renewable energy. Though Olien is billed as the expert with Efron as his eager protegee, it’s clear that they are both learning on their tour of two energy stations powered by volcanic activity, the Eurasian-North American tectonic plate, and a lagoon with curative properties for people with skin conditions. They also take part in more traditional travel show activities: making their own chocolate bars, sampling a traditional Icelandic meal prepared with local ingredients by a Michelin-starred chef, and, yes, making sure Efron took off his clothes and got into an Icelandic ice bath (a stunt he repeated in the show’s final episode in Peru, this time for a shamanic steam bath ritual). 

The mix of food and travel porn (both things we all need as quarantines continue) with examples of sustainability that are real and not hypothetical is what lifted my skepticism. I knew Iceland was light years beyond the rest of the world in renewables, but I didn’t know the ins and outs of harnessing volcanic gasses for an electrical grid. I knew that Mediterranean diets are supposedly the healthiest, but the Sardinia episode was a much more thoughtful look at how our bodies metabolize food differently as they age; the island’s surplus of centenarians is due as much to the cultural emphasis on family and the outdoors as it is to a diet that balances protein with carbs. This is where Efron fully won me over: “I once went six months without eating a single carb,” he blurted out, his eyes widening as the new knowledge fully dawned on him. 

Throughout it all, Efron is frank about his privilege and the fact that he’s an actor, not an expert.

Each episode’s destination comes with a relentless focus on what that place has already done to embrace sustainability, not what they plan to do. In the second episode, Efron and Olien travel to Paris for a start-to-finish tour of the city’s tap water filtration system, which keeps the necessary minerals intact, without chemical treatments. There’s plenty of fodder for advocates that want to see a similar system in their city, but the show also explains what to look for when you do buy bottled water. (I learned that “purified” is actually bad news!) An episode on Puerto Rico looks at the transitions enabled by the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Maria, including the installation of solar panels and changes in food production. The London episode details the pollutants that will affect bees on traditional farms, but not urban farms (and vice versa), and includes multiple how-tos for budding urban farmers. The Costa Rica episode, in which Efron and Olien visit a zero-waste expat community in the jungle, felt a little bit Goop-y — but with enough information on the native plants and the process for designing the community that it wasn’t patronizing.

Throughout it all, Efron is frank about his privilege and the fact that he’s an actor, not an expert. In his own words, the series came about because he was searching for a purpose beyond acting and heard Olien talking about superfoods on a podcast “like a guru.” He’s critical of his own carbon footprint without being whiny, and openly acknowledges his fear of aging because of Hollywood’s fixation on youth and looks.

As an impact investing writer, I was dying to learn more about how some of the projects were funded, or what the social entrepreneurs responsible for them were building or scaling next — but (much like my desire for more on the appeals process in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile”) that’s my own selfish wish. That I learned new things from the show and came to appreciate its star as more than just a handsome face is enough for my endorsement — and the show’s overarching message, articulated by Efron at the end of the Puerto Rico episode: “In a world of consumption, we don’t need much to be truly happy.”

Photo by Netflix