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Anthony Bourdain didn’t invent the global travel-while-eating TV genre, but a mark of his genius can be seen in how many potential successors have followed in his path — and how many shows have been needed to fill the void left by Bourdain’s death in 2018.
Some of them, started while Bourdain still was in his prime, are pretty great. I love Phil Rosenthal’s Somebody Feed Phil (and I’ll Have What Phil’s Having before that) and David Chang’s Ugly Delicious; and Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation, limited to domestic geography in its first season, is off to a great start. Those shows, and other lesser entries in the genre, share a marvelous aspiration of using television and food to connect a world that is, despite unifiers like social media, becoming oddly more fragmented.
Air date: Jul 10, 2020
The latest to enter the fray is High School Musical and The Paperboy star Zac Efron, who joins forces with “wellness expert” Darin Olien on Netflix’s new Down to Earth With Zac Efron. Food plays a key role in Down to Earth, but if you’ve seen Efron’s abs — appearing at the 20-minute mark of one of two episodes made available pre-launch by Netflix — you can probably guess that the series isn’t designed as a tour of international patisseries.
Instead, Efron and Olien have a slightly loftier goal: an eye-opening journey spurred on by buzz phrases like “renewable energy” and “sustainable living.” Based on what I’ve seen, Down to Earth may not necessarily have a cohesive focus, nor is Efron an instantly dynamic guide, but it surely has its heart (if not always its head) in the right place. And any viewer lured by the siren song of Efron’s wicked grin will have their metaphorical ship smashed against some lightly provocative rocks.
The two episodes provided to critics, set in Iceland and Costa Rica, offer two very different versions of what Down to Earth can be.
Iceland, as Efron reflects in very carefully written and recited voiceover, is a country with more tourists than residents. Efron and Olien visit two different geothermal power stations and get tours and remedial explanations for things like disposal of CO2 — Efron’s father, an engineer at a nuclear power station, imparted a fair amount of curiosity to his son, which helps here — but everything in their visit is very well-organized. That includes a dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant, a “fire and ice” massage and even a visit to a local chocolatier, where they’re able to design their own confections.
In Costa Rica, though, Efron and Olien mostly eschew touristy activities, other than a poorly explained afternoon zip-lining, but they also eschew purely local experiences as well. Their focus is on strange expat communities — Efron’s voiceover assumes his fans don’t know what an “expat” is — that bridge the gap between neo-hippie commune and straight-up New Age cult, as they learn about small groups living completely off the land, schools that teach without homework or testing and the logistics of waste disposal and methane collection. There also are monkeys and homemade pancakes.
Both episodes feature rudimentary explanations of the environmental science at work and end with the vaguest of platitudes about how the lessons gleaned here can impact our perspectives on change in the world (“Change has to start somewhere, and even if it’s a little uncomfortable at first, if the change is for the better, it’s worth it!”). But neither episode is anything resembling rigorous, nor does either take the opportunity to include a call-to-action URL. Efron has unquestionable curiosity about the advancements he and Olien are learning about, but it’s a curiosity that remains at an introductory level, and the show seems to assume that the fans Efron attracts will be coming from a similar perspective.
More than anything, Efron thinks this stuff is all cool. And it is! But man, if you were to play a drinking game involving imbibing every time Efron or Olien reacts to a fact or a site or an experience with an enthusiastic “Dude!” or “Bro!” and absolutely no follow-up, you wouldn’t make it through the episodes I’ve seen, much less the entire season. Their rapport is composed of geeky movie references, Olien’s surprisingly good impressions and general low-level frat hijinks. Although clearly Efron views Olien as something of a guru, that’s not the role he’s playing here, Yoda impression aside. Whatever expertise Olien contributes has been put on the back burner, which is a choice.
I don’t mind the decision to leave Efron’s unpolished candor as his dominant personality trait here. When he goes to a chocolate factory and his initial reaction to the ingredient-packed candy bar that he designed borders on disgust? Well, that’s just how he reacted. When he attempts to prank Olien and it falls flat? Well, that’s just part of the show. With more editorial oversight, somebody might have asked him, “Zac, do you really want to leave in the part where you get to an island commune and refer to ‘a bunch of chicks’ coming to greet you?” but it’s a response without malice or filter, so they left it in. The guy has been acting since he was a kid, and he’s lived his life experiencing highs and lows in the public eye, but to watch him here, you’d think he was just an ordinary hunk with the resources to travel the world looking for ways to improve civilization.
The Bourdain shows and the series they inspired work best when they blend personal autobiography with global empathy. Eventually, Efron may find a way to harness those dual forces. From what I’ve seen, Down to Earth and Efron’s upcoming adventure reality series on Quibi, Killing Zac Efron, point to a young man looking for a way to use his fame to do things that make him say “Dude!” If that helps introduce a few people to ways of living more sustainably? Not bad, bro.
Premieres Friday, July 10, on Netflix.
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