• The Outside Story

Why I Had to Stop Watching Down to Earth With Zac Efron

Written by Jonathan | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

If you're anything like me (and the majority of the rest of the world), you're constantly scouring Netflix and other similar streaming services for new things to watch. A few weeks ago, Zac Efron's recent TV series, Down to Earth, popped up on my feed. In fact, the show had been trending on the top 10 shows on Netflix for two weeks when it came out, so it probably popped up on your feed too.

I was curious because: (1) who doesn't love Zac Efron, (2) it's a show about how people are already doing the good work of keeping the earth clean and well cared for, and (3) it's Zac freaking Efron.

So out of curiosity, I put on an episode while eating dinner one night.

Zac Efron in Down to Earth

The first episode is about Iceland and the good work that the Icelandic people are doing there to keep their nation sustainable and (almost) completely fossil fuel free. I thought to myself, "Hmmm. Interesting." I didn't know that Iceland as an entire nation was doing this. But if ya didn't know, like me, now you do.

The second episode was also quite interesting. It's about water and what the nation of France, specifically the city of Paris, is doing to keep water a free and clean resource for people to use. From an app that shows you where to get free water to dispensable reusable containers all around the city, Paris makes clean water accessible to everyone. It was also nice to see a little cameo from Anna Kendrick. Props to Paris for being a model to the world, especially for the U.S., around sourcing clean free water to its people. To my fellow Americans, let's not forget what happened in Flint, Michigan where communities of color were impacted the most.

A sparkling water fountain in France with natural mineral contents listed so people know what they're drinking.

Then I watched the third episode and all my hesitations for this show manifested before me. What were those hesitations? Well, here we go.

Going into the show, I knew that it was hosted by two white men. There's nothing inherently wrong with two white men. But in our hyper-racialized world, it gets a little weird when you realize that these two people are traveling around the world, experiencing cool new things, learning about things firsthand, AND they're getting paid for it. If that's not privilege then please tell ya boy, because I don't know what is. Spending time watching Zac and his bro Darin do these things just reminded me of how unprivileged I am and that wasn't a good feeling.

Then, of course, their race plays into it because they go to these places and can act any way they want to. In episode 2, they even have a conflict with one of their interviewees, the physician in residence at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. This was due to someone interrupting the interviewee in the middle of the conversation.

For the most part, they're respectful but I felt uncomfortable watching it. Especially episode 3 where they went to Costa Rica.

In Costa Rica, instead of visiting the local indigenous people, they visit expatriates (i.e., expats). All of them were white. And that feeling I had of being uncomfortable exploded tenfold. I watched communities of white expats living off of Costa Rican land. One community lived on an island. They're equivalent to modern day hippies who farm their own crops, cook their own food, and live in a small village together where everything is shared. Sounds cool, bro.

This rubbed me the wrong way for a couple of reasons: (1) that's not my experience of expats and (2) why the hell are they in Costa Rica?

I lived in Shanghai for 6 weeks in the summer of 2015 for an internship. It was one of the best experiences of my life. It was one of the worst travel experiences I've ever had but once I got there, I loved every second of it and even contemplated moving there had I not gotten into grad school.

One of the many skyscrapers in Shanghai, China.

The expat community there was wonderful. There were people from all over the world and the place I interned at had people from over 100 different nations being represented in its makeup. I met people from Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Australia... you name it and I probably met someone from there (except maybe Antarctica...). A lot of the expats were there for work or for school.

Fast forward to episode 3 of Chillin' with Zac and his Bro, this expat community just threw me off. Again, they were all white. None of them were working. Some of them taught "school" and it was unclear if they got paid. But, for the most part, they just... lived on an island together.

Must be nice to be able to leave, move to Costa Rica, pick an island, and create a community there just because you want to. I'm not undermining the stories of immigrants and refugees who have to leave because of the hope for a better life. I'm talking about people who have nothing better to do than to travel the world and live on a tropical island because they feel it's their right to live sustainably. I have no doubt that that's not everyone's story on the island. But maybe they could've shared some of those stories with us so that I wouldn't feel weird watching the show.

Zac, his bro, and the Costa Rican "expat" community.

There are intentional communities here in the United States, some that are actually quite good. One person and community that comes to mind is Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove who is a part of an intentional community with a focus on social justice. Another longtime tradition is monastic communities who come together for accountability, prayer, and spiritual growth. Somewhat related, I also think of ethnic communities who organically (vs. intentionally) exist for the sake of preservation of culture and survival.

With all the white folk living on this island, it felt a bit like colonialism again and that made me real uncomfortable. I couldn't take it anymore, so I had to stop.

For those of you who watched the series, what do you think? Does it get better? Do you agree or disagree with me? Is watching Zac Efron shirtless worth the uncomfortable feels? I don't know if I'll ever go back to finish it. But change my mind and let me know what you think!