Who Gets to be Down to Earth?

White men are always applauded for doing the bare minimum.

Welcome to The Edit! This newsletter is about dissecting culture, media and trends. From politics to pop culture, I’ll be curating and engaging with relevant criticism while also writing some of my own takes. Every week, I’ll send out an essay, a list of good reads, work that I have recently published and a fun recommendation here and there.

Eleven years ago, I sat red-faced next to my dad after watching 17 Again, starring High School Musical’s Zac Efron. The movie — which is honestly forgettable all these years later, except for the sexual innuendos that I was incensed by as a naive 10-year-old — was one of Efron’s first attempts to cement himself as a movie star, not just a Disney dreamboat. It wouldn’t be the last time Efron tries to pivot and brand himself as something, well, different.

With Down to Earth with Zac Efron, a new Netflix show about “saving the world,” Efron walks us through eight locations that exemplify “new” sustainable ways to live. From geothermal energy plants in Iceland to solar houses in Puerto Rico, Efron and his superfood guru friend, Darin Olien, serve as your accessible, easygoing guides to seemingly complicated topics. Or at least that’s what they’re hoping for.

In reality, Down to Earth is a fragmented, wishy-washy docuseries that means absolutely nothing. It can’t decide between whether it wants to be a health, science, travel or food show. That’s not to say that those things don’t intersect — the way we consume and travel does have a verifiable impact on the planet — but that Down to Earth does not think those relationships through. There is no discussion about racism, colonialism or capitalism and how those systems are directly responsible for the climate disaster we are in. Without this framing in mind, the show seems extremely haphazard and clueless, hopping between cryopreservation of seeds and spa treatments at the Hilton (always at the Hilton in almost every episode!). The clueless editorial choices extend to every episode that takes place in a predominantly non-white country. Costa Rica’s episode chooses to highlight a bunch of white expats allegedly making Costa Rica better in the name of helping the natives. Puerto Rico’s episode neglects to mention President Trump and FEMA’s horrible response to Hurricane Maria (other than flashing a few headlines on the screen as well as a comment from the mayor of San Juan) and doesn’t even bother explaining how U.S. colonialism is directly responsible for how things are on the island. In Iquitos, the show dives into stereotypical ayahuasca tourism (once again a white man is saved by an Indigenous shaman), but does not question it further. The result is an extremely surface level show that often relies on stereotypes and the tourist gaze.

And then there’s the question of why Zac Efron and Darin Olien: Why in the world do we need another show starring white guys who don’t really know what they’re talking about? The answer, of course, is Netflix wanted a relatable, hot and memeable host who could make the complex interesting; Zac Efron’s quest to make his life more fulfilling happened to fit that bill. “What is enough?” Efron contemplatively asks on a little boat in Costa Rica. A few minutes later, he glibly says: “Who cares about the Shipibo people? There’s a bunch of girls coming out!” Time and time again, producers put value on white guys whose “funny” comments border on inappropriate in the name of enjoyable content. The lack of perspective is intended to make viewers feel as though they’re not dumb for not knowing the science behind air pollution or tectonic plates — i.e. the idea of learning along with the narrator — but it fantastically fails. What we get is Zac Efron saying “bro” and “sick” over and over again for the show’s duration. In all honesty, the show would have benefitted from having someone else be Efron’s “smart” sidekick, ideally someone who wasn’t a white bro who loves “exotic” plants, but you can’t force connections and chemistry. Olien and Efron first met years ago when Efron was listening to his podcasts (I believe this was when Efron was training for Baywatch, but don’t quote me on that). They bonded over a mutual quest of finding out how to achieve health, which then morphed into whatever Down to Earth is. The friendship there is what carries the show along, sometimes to its benefit and other times to its detriment. 

Naturally, food became their avenue to discuss health, which makes sense to me, considering Olien has written a book on superfoods (it should be noted that the language surrounding superfoods is scam). But as someone who has a complicated relationship with food, sometimes the way certain foods were framed was tough to sit through. In the Sardinia episode, there’s a moment where Efron talks about how he wasn’t allowed to eat carbs while he was filming Baywatch because they weren’t “healthy.” The researcher he was with, who studies why Sardinia has a large population of centenarians, explains how the problem is moderation and lifestyle, not the food itself. It’s an important lesson to learn — especially for those with a history of disordered eating — but the care of not labeling food as “good” or “bad” isn’t always clear in every episode. I was supposed to be watching a show about how to make the earth a better place, not walking back down memory lane, questioning the morality of food. I wished Down to Earth focused more on why certain food systems are unsustainable versus making it about our own personal health. 

Arguably, the most notable, remarkable moment from Down to Earth was one that wasn’t planned at all. In the Iquitos episode, Olien gets a call about his house burning down in the middle of the 2018 Los Angeles fires. He says he doesn’t regret coming to Iquitos and that the show was his way of making a difference. To some extent this is true, but not in the way he thinks. What resonated with me was not him and Efron traveling around the world, but rather seeing how climate change had already come for him. In the end credits, we see Olien standing over the smoldering remains of where his house once stood, yelling in anguish with his gas mask dangling. It’s an undeniable reminder that for most people the luxury of finding the perfect solution is one we can’t afford; we need climate action and we need it now. 

Here’s what I read this week: 

Here’s what I published: For this week’s Gen Q&A, I spoke to Sheniell Granato, a nurse who tried to talk to Sen. Cornyn about Texas’ lack of PPE before getting shut down by his team. We talked about that call, her lingering COVID symptoms & how masks shouldn’t be political.

And here’s a fun recommendation for your weekend: If you are suffering from a bad case of brain worms, play Kingdom Hearts 3 without having any understanding of what’s going on. You will have a blast. 


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