The most surprising thing about Down to Earth with Zac Efron is that, on occasion, a deeply personal story briefly peeks through the seams of the Netflix travelogue.
These fleeting moments come when Efron is shown in the middle of a long car ride, staring out of the window, his eyes to the horizon. Then in the midst of all the talk about volcanic energy and sustainable farming, he’ll reveal the insecurities that surround his notoriety. It really does appear that Efron sees the absurdity in using his own fame to lend notoriety to the doctors and researchers highlighted on the show.
In some ways, Efron is like the Thing from the Fantastic Four. He may not like what the world sees when it looks at him, but he will use his horrible new powers to save the world. Or I’ve watched six episodes of this show and Stockholm syndrome has started to set in. We’ll see.
Episode 5: Lima
The Lima episode begins, naturally, in New York, which you may know as “the Lima of the U.S.” You know this episode is going to be a mess because while stuck in traffic, cohost Darin Olien looks over to Zac and says, “Apples have a very interesting history.”
While most likely a true statement, knowing Darin, he will quickly find a way to prove himself wrong. He begins his tale by saying that apples are originally from Kazakhstan and that’s pretty much the only takeaway. Conversation tip No. 1: Clearly distinguish your “cool stories” from your “fun facts.”
Arriving at an orchard in the Upstate, Zac explains the pressure of always having to be camera ready under the constant gaze of the paparazzi. He recalls his first appearances on the cover of Tiger Beat. You know, standard orchard talk.
We then get some insight into the pathos that led to Efron making this show. And honestly, it’s the best, most honest thing I’ve seen in the past five episodes.
“Success without purpose is a pretty meaningless life,” Zac says, as he examines his place in the world. I wish the show would focus more on that. But instead we’ve got to hear more about apple varieties like we’re caught in some harvest festival purgatory.
At Angry Orchards, Zac meets head cider maker Ryan Burke. Ryan quickly runs down all the dos and don’ts of the orchard grounds. What’s allowed and what’s not. These are commonly known as the cider house rules.
Ryan explains that before Prohibition, most Americans consumed apples in the form of cider, because life at the time was terrible. Wrapping up this scene, Ryan also confirms Darin’s claim about apples originating in Kazakhstan. With that said, we venture to Kazakhstan, home of the world’s largest variety of wild sheep and…
We’re going to Lima. Not sure what all that Kazakhstan talk was about. On to Peru.
Arriving in Lima, Zac and Darin visit the International Potato Center, which houses more varieties of potato strains than anywhere else in the world. Serving as one of the world’s doomsday vaults, the center will preserve the potato in the event of an environmental catastrophe, while also working to engineer new varieties that can resist the effects of climate change. Other doomsday vaults include Norway’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Taiwan’s World Vegetable Center, and America’s International House of Pancakes.
We then meet Rainer, the cryoengineering specialist who escorts Zac and Darin to the gene bank. The best part of this is Rainer typing in what seems to be a 30-digit passcode at the entrance. This scene goes on so long that it feels like an Austin Powers bit. It’s incredible.
Rainer looks like Justin Vernon from Bon Iver had a baby with the brothers from Arcade Fire. Even better, he sounds like Werner Herzog. But instead of describing the horrific absurdities of the human condition in the face of nature, he is talking about preserving potatoes in the event of a nuclear war and global warming.
So yes, exactly like Werner Herzog. Let’s hope this episode slowly veers into Fitzcarraldo territory with Rainer at the helm.
Zac then explains the chemical properties of liquid nitrogen before dunking a GoPro in a freezing chemical bath. He really contains multitudes.
Having unsuccessfully attempted to ruin more camera equipment, Zac meets Virgilio Martinez, a Peruvian skateboarder turned master chef. Virgilio then abducts the camera crew at machete-point, and he and Rainer film themselves absconding with the world’s supply of super potatoes. Not really, but damn would you love to see it.
Instead, we get the usual. Martinez sources hyperlocal foods for his restaurants. Zac and Darin consume several courses of cuisine that I don’t recognize at all. Martinez then grabs Zac, and they go skateboarding. Again, multitudes.
While it would be cool to see a compilation of CKY-style shred sessions between Zac and Martinez, we instead jump to Darin’s all-vegan birthday dinner, which is exactly as fun as it sounds.
In lieu of a cake, they shove a candle into a large bean or seed of some sort. Oh, but it’s a trick candle that never goes out. A true Peruvian classic.
Starting a new day, we find Darin and Zac practicing breathing techniques on the rooftop of a Hilton hotel. Magically they manage to find relaxation atop an actual monument to luxury. Remember this part for next episode.
Zac and Darin then travel to the nearby dunes to go sandboarding, which is how the CIA tortures Anakin Skywalker.
In a final summation, Zac opines that it may not be nuclear war or “apes taking over the planet” that doom humanity. Instead it could be dramatic food shortages.
Oh, and the episode ends with an in memoriam to a crew member’s dog. This is all getting very grim. I am sorry. This is not what people need right now. Hopefully things will pick up.
Where are we headed next?
Post Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico.
Episode 6: Puerto Rico
Arriving at the port of San Juan, Darin and Zac immediately split up. Darin forks off in search of local food sources while Zac meets up with San Juan Mayor Carmen Cruz.
Zac describes Mayor Cruz as a “polarizing” figure. I guess she is “polarizing” if you consider “not wanting all your constituents to perish” as a political side, but here we are.
At the time of production, Zac says it’s been one year since hurricanes devastated the island. Standing inside a stadium that housed hundreds or thousands of displaced locals in the aftermath of the storms, Zac is humbled when the mayor asks him to sign the “Wall of Hope” alongside major celebrities and community leaders who directly contributed to the recovery effort. At first, Zac is reluctant, as he hasn’t been rescuing people from floodwaters and has just now made his way to Puerto Rico. The mayor says it’s important that Efron is keeping the word out about climate change and the ongoing recovery need in Puerto Rico.
As Zac joins the mayor to visit members of the community most affected by the destruction, we reach the most resonant scenes of the show so far. A local family still has a yard full of debris. They are unable to remove it. Zac offers to go grab Darin, and then the crew will clear everything out of the way. The best part of this is that it’s simple. Not everything has to be a grand gesture. Sometimes people just need you to help them load up a truck.
This act of goodwill is shown in a nice efficient montage, which is really heartwarming until the director or someone decides to strap a GoPro on an actual piece of these people’s destroyed home to follow its sick journey to the truck.
Just don’t. We don’t need “rad” natural disaster cleanup footage.
Moving on, Zac and Darin visit a 50-farm cooperative so that Zac can milk a goat. The goat’s name is Chimby. In a scene that is definitely somebody’s fetish, Darin decides to linger over Zac’s shoulder while he’s mid-teat and repeats the phrase “drink the milk.”
Apparently goat milk is safe to drink straight from the udder. So Zac gulps down some warm goat milk. Describing the taste like a well-traveled goat sommelier, Zac says, “The nose of it is goat.” Awesome.
Coincidentally, but not coincidentally at all, Zac and Darin then visit a local Hilton hotel badly damaged in the storm. While I’m sure this is relevant to the story of how Puerto Rico continues working to recover from Hurricane Maria, the repeated appearance of Hilton properties feels like it’s more than just Efron’s brand loyalty. This becomes especially apparent when we are informed that the hotel “is gonna be beautiful” when repairs are completed.
Skipping ahead, Zac learns about a conservation organization grappling with the partial destruction of Puerto Rico’s local fishing industry. In addition to cleaning up debris and supplying local fishers, the group helped develop an app that connects anglers with restaurants. Efron describes this as “Tinder for fish.”
From a comedy writing perspective, this should cause your eyelid to twitch. Clearly, the appropriate nautical dating app joke is “This app is like Plenty of Fish (beat) for fish.”
I would have also taken “Forget Tinder. This is Fin-der,” but even that is pushing it.
We are treated to a series of scenes showing a few fresh catches make their way from the boat to a local chef’s kitchen. There, Zac enjoys a nice ceviche. The meal is capped off with a really unnatural shot that reaffirms my fears of awkward product placement.
From above, we see a check holder emblazoned with a large Visa logo sliding into view. Immediately, someone off camera plunks down a shiny Visa card and slides the check forward. It hasn’t been too bad up to this point, but the product placement in this episode has become a bit distracting. It’s one thing to see Zac wearing multiple pieces of clothing with the same brand names stitched across the front like he’s a Nascar driver, but now we’re getting out of hand.
Thankfully, Zac and Darin are rejoined by Mayor Cruz, who brings along her own swag in the form of powder blue baseball caps with the city’s ungainly municipal logo stitched on it. Now they all look like they are on the same embarrassing family vacation.
Mayor Cruz informs us that we are traveling deep into the jungle to meet a 10-year-old genius named Jose. Jose’s family is being presented with a brand-new prefabricated house designed to resist hurricane-force winds.
In a truly devastating story, almost all of Jose’s books were destroyed in the most recent storm. As they tour the new home, Darin advises Jose to drink plenty of water, which will allow him to retain more information. As always, Darin is a real fount of knowledge. Maybe hydration isn’t really the issue here. Perhaps there are some lingering systemic issues that are at play, Darin.
I’m just happy they didn’t make Jose do any “genius tricks,” like conduct long-division in his head or count a bunch of matches they tossed on the floor.
With that said, Jose and his family have a new house. Potatoes are somewhat safe. And Zac Efron is undergoing an existential crisis. I can’t wait to wrap things up with the final two episodes of Down to Earth, which will likely involve Zac going full Colonel Kurtz and self-isolating at a converted co-op in Silver Lake where aspiring child stars serve as his foot soldiers.
Join me for our thrilling conclusion.