As I write this, a minor debate has broken out on the Internet regarding Zac Efron’s physique on Netflix’s Down to Earth. Appearing on the show as something other than a hairless marble statue given life, Efron was described as having a “dad bod” by some. This is, of course, absurd. But it also showcases how skewed our standards for television are currently. Let me explain.
When assessing Efron as he appears on Down to Earth, some feel the urge to compare him to the impossible and very much dehydrated level of hench that he achieved for films such as Baywatch and Neighbors. But here’s the thing, those are major studio films. Down to Earth, despite being a Netflix original, is just TV. And that’s fine.
The problem is that our standards have been spoiled a bit by having lived through the recent era of Peak TV. Shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones achieved a level of cinematic artistry that was once only reserved for film. This collided with the rise of streaming services, and now you can watch anything and everything at a whim. This has led to many people conflating TV with major films, and in the case of Efron, film bodies with TV bodies.
Remember: Every TV show used to just be two people talking in a kitchen, and then a third person shows up. That was it. So let’s maybe forgive Zac for passing on complete body waxes and four-a-days while he travels the world to learn about vegan tattoos and how we are destroying the planet.
Episode 3: Costa Rica
Introducing us to what he describes as an “affordable” and tropically beautiful Central American country, Zac explains that he had a big budget for this episode. So naturally, he rented a massive bus to drive around town.
And this isn’t a case where he says, “This thing runs on old French fry grease” or anything. This is just a monstrous gas-guzzler that he has paid to transport him deep into the heart of a remote eco-village. The next step up from this is strapping a bunch of jet engines to that trash island in the middle of the ocean and driving it to your upcoming beach sweep.
Co-host Darin Olien, a man who seems to have lived his entire life in a refrigerator box, describes the sustainable community they visit as a “food forest place” and asks Zac, “What if your lawn was food?”
That’s a farm, Darin. Also, gardens. These are things that exist. No need to imagine.
We then meet Darin’s friend, Stephen, who is co-creator of this “food forest place,” La Ecovilla. Stephen explains that this community was founded because many people live in cities and suburbs and their food is shipped in. He dreamed of a society living amongst its food, which again is a farm. Like they have in rural areas.
Also, climates vary and not every area can support a subsistent agricultural industry, but it’s fine. Stephen seems like a nice guy with his heart in the right place. Let’s just hope he’s not about to introduce us to a charismatic leader who always wears sunglasses and keeps marrying everyone in the village.
After Stephen criticizes people who love chocolate, but have not sampled pure cacao fresh from the source, we arrive at his massive “hand-sculpted” estate. And I don’t use the term “estate” lightly. This place is palatial. Maybe let’s not chocolate-shame people who just want to enjoy a Snickers from time to time in their studio apartment.
Zac says the goal of La Ecovilla is to create the smallest environmental footprint. This philosophy ties into how the community handles its waste. Describing waste management, Stephen says, “The problem is the solution,” which is one of those things we say that don’t mean anything.
La Ecovilla utilizes a methane digester that repurposes human waste as fertilizer. Unable to simply describe it as “solids,” Zac adds that he really means “poops.” Also, Darin labels the balloons that collect methane gas and prevent it from entering the atmosphere as “the community fart bag.” This is why we can’t have nice things.
Next we visit the village school. There are no divisions amongst grades as students from ages 3-18 are all taught together. The school director is oddly proud of how all the students have ready access to kitchen knives that they use to prepare lunch.
I used to work at a tutoring center, and I would let the kids go to the 7-Eleven a few doors down. I didn’t really celebrate their ability to return unharmed as a sign of a successful learning environment, but the role of an educator is hard to define.
As a child speeds by on a zipline, the school director says there are no tests or homework. Zac responds to this by miming that his mind has exploded. I like the idea that even as a 30-something man, Zac Efron is still worried about getting homework. You must remember that he went to one of those high schools where they perform elaborately choreographed dance numbers and rap about basketball and how your dad won’t let you join glee club.
The next day finds Zac and Darin driving across the country in their big bus that defeats the purpose of the environmental village they just left. The boys arrive at a massive zipline operation, because that is apparently the most common form of transportation in Costa Rica.
Darin, a man who manages to reduce the significance of every passing moment, describes the zipline harness as “a nut-cruncher” before an irritated park worker hurls him into the woods. After careening from tree line to tree line for no apparent reason, Zac and Darin visit the Jaguar Rescue Center.
The best part of this is that we learn that Zac’s favorite animal is the ocelot. No explanation for his preference is given, but it’s nice to gain more insight into his mind.
Encar, the founder of the center, explains that the rescue operation was founded when she and her husband met in Costa Rica and fell in love over their shared passion for nature and desire to save animals. That is a much more noble story than my wife and I have, as we both simply hated all the same things about the people we know.
Encar then reveals that her husband died a few years ago after they founded the rescue center. Please consider for a moment that there is a movie called We Bought a Zoo that isn’t about these people.
Encar then shows off a rare endangered armadillo. I’m very familiar with armadillos. The stretch of Georgia where I grew up is populated with a variety of armadillo that carries leprosy, so if you ever want to catch a disease made famous by the Bible, please consider a visit to middle Georgia.
We then catch back up with La Ecovilla’s Stephen, who says he decided to improve conditions in Costa Rica when he vacationed there with his parents and witnessed some locals on a banana plantation get crop dusted.
Again, Stephen seems to be trying to do something positive, but maybe we could hear from some actual locals. Like, some people who grew up in the area. The show awkwardly cuts to some actual Costa Ricans silently piloting Stephen’s boat while he recites lines from the white savior playbook, and it’s just a bit of a groaner.
Up to this point, Down to Earth has been a bit scattershot in terms of the show’s ultimate intentions. Honestly, I think it’s time for a fresh start. And where best to start over than in one of the most elderly communities on Earth.
Episode 4: Sardinia
Reaching the halfway point of this season, we find a contemplative Zac Efron informing his co-host that he is done with Hollywood. Zac says it’s just not an environment conducive to a long, happy life. I don’t know what it is about Sardinia that has brought on this sudden realization, but Zac’s been on screen since he was a kid. He should do whatever is necessary to take care of himself. Leave Hollywood if that’s what you need, Zac. Start over. Move to Sardinia, buy a goat, and grow artichokes. Just don’t fall prey to the system.
Oh wait. Apparently, that eye-opening moment of clarity was just a big goof, as Zac tells us in voiceover that he’s not leaving the limelight. You got us, I guess.
In this episode, Zac visits Sardinia to learn the secret to living a long, healthy life. It makes sense that Efron is concerned about aging because as we learned in 17 Again, at some point he becomes a sad Matthew Perry.
Apparently, Sardinia boasts one of the world’s longest average lifespans. Zac and Darin meet with two researchers studying the area’s elderly population. One common trend that these researchers have found among the region’s older residents is a low protein diet, which they say reduces the chances for age-related diseases.
Surprisingly, this contradicts what I learned from the 1960 film The Leech Woman, which taught me that the secret to eternal youth was harvesting secretions from the pineal glands of unsuspecting men. If anything, Down to Earth has saved the lives of countless men with engorged pineal glands.
Zac tags along as the researchers visit a local woman born in 1920. They applaud as she successfully draws a clock during a cognitive test (just like the president!). Put her on the ballot.
Watching Zac assess his own aging is all the more poignant in light of the whole “dad bod” fiasco I mentioned earlier. It’s one thing to get older. It’s another to do it with the world watching, so I appreciate Efron’s candor.
Zac and his team spend a fair bit of this episode discussing disease-free living in a cemetery. Again, this is a moment that hits differently under the current pandemic.
As I write this, red lights bounce across my apartment. Two ambulances are parked in front of the building next door. The same address where two other ambulances were parked the night before.
There’s just something surreal about seeing Zac Efron hanging out with centenarians sans a hazmat suit, but I guess this is the new normal.
Moving on, we find Zac and Darin taking part in a Sardinian cooking class, followed by a delightful homemade dinner. Tucking into a plate of ravioli, Zac explains why he’s so happy to eat a carb. During the filming of Baywatch, he didn’t have a carb for six months. Six months! This is too great of a sacrifice for your art.
Zac then visits Francesco, a 97-year-old former World War 2 pilot turned shepherd and No. 1 fan of Zac’s beard. Francesco is great. He looks like a dried apple carving of the coolest person you can imagine. After meeting Zac, he puts on the suit that Valentino was buried in and they take a walk.
We see how Francesco gets his steps in as they arrive at the bar he visits every day for some wine. Awesome. I always love when news stories about a 98-year-old who drinks Kentucky Gentleman every day go viral because it’s just younger people finding an excuse for their vices. Every time you see one of those articles pass across your feed, the sales of canned wine double.
The main takeaway from this episode and really the whole dad bod discussion is that I want Zac Efron to live a long, healthy life, full of carbs. I want him to carve out a giant baguette and sail the seas of Sardinia with a celery paddle.
So we’re halfway through this season of Down to Earth and coming off its best episode yet. In the next episode, we’ll follow Zac to Lima and Puerto Rico, and hopefully uncover some more pearls of wisdom from our elders. As always, remember that Oprah said it best when she shouted “Bread!” in all those commercials. See you next time.
Hungry for more from Zac Efron? Watch The Paperboy for free on Plex now.