“It’s planet Earth and I’m still on it, chilling,” says Zac Efron at the start of his new Netflix eco-travel show, Down to Earth with Zac Efron, so we can’t say we haven’t been warned about the tone of what will follow. As televised peregrinations go, this will not be on a level with Parts Unknown, or Simon Reeve, or Top Gear.
Efron, who made his name as the wax-chested hunk in Disney’s High School Musical, has evolved into a 32-year-old hairy hunk, complete with hipster beard, plaid shirts and a beanie perched atop his chiselled jaw. With maturity, he has also acquired a slight sadness around the eyes. If his previous aesthetic was “electrified Ken doll”, the new look is more “bewildered coffee shop owner”. He is joined by his mate, the author and “wellness expert” Darin Olien, brought along to lend a bit of fraternal jocularity to Zac’s grand tour.
We never learn why Efron has been chosen for this task. He doesn’t seem to have any particular interest in the environment, or food, and is not a natural travel presenter. Although he’s relentlessly positive, and has obviously spent plenty of time in front of a camera, he never expresses curiosity beyond the most simplistic admiration. Presumably, Netflix hopes that he still has enough clout with younger millennials and Gen Z’ers that they’ll tune in out of respect for his oeuvre. There must be a narrow band of people who care enough about Efron to tune in, but not enough about the environment to find this hopelessly simplistic.
Olien’s not much better. He’s older than his co-presenter and obviously can’t believe his luck at being asked along for the ride. He tags along behind like an older brother, doing Lord of the Rings and Star Wars voices and contributing no insight or expertise, except for the odd crack at his selective veganism.
In the first episode, the bros hump around Iceland, a haven for sustainability experts thanks to its abundant geothermal and hydroelectric power plants. From high school musical to pre-school geography. Few nations are as photogenic, and it’s all shot with Netflix’s typical high-definition gloss, with abundant drone shots of gorgeous volcanic panoramas. Efron and Olien bake bread in thermal sands, swim in the Blue Lagoon, have an “ice and fire” massage, make chocolate, eat reindeer tartare at the Michelin-starred Dill, and do various other Iceland 101 tourist activities. “Wow,” they say. “Gnarly.” “Bigtime.” “Woah.” “Dude.” “Nailed it.” “Holy s***.” “Rad.” “Wild.” “This is one of four geothermal plants in Iceland,” says Olien, as they pull into the car park. “Sick,” Efron replies.
Efron reveals that his father works as an engineer at a nuclear power station, before asking a startled-looking employee how a turbine works. It’s possible this is faux-naivety, an artistic device to help the audience join him on his voyage of discovery, but I’m not convinced. Later, he starts talking about the health benefits of “negative ions”, for viewers who prefer inane travelogue to come with a side of quackery.
“Electricity is easy to take for granted,” he muses, after a trip to a hydroelectric plant. “But this place gives me much greater appreciation for what makes electricity.” I wonder if the experience of filming Down to Earth has given him a greater appreciation for what makes decent television.