I don’t know if it’s something in my Glasgow-born waters, but it’s fair to say that I have a considerably high suspicion of, if not outright aversion to, woo-woo. So, while I go into every review with an open mind, of course, it’s also undeniable that if a show is co-hosted by a Hollywood A-lister who bunked in Byron Bay during lockdown and someone billed as a ‘wellness expert’ who heads up an empire of said woo-woo, I’m going to be a little sceptical.
It was with one eyebrow raised, then, that I dove into Netflix road trip-come-docuseries Down to Earth with Zac Efron: Down Under. The Baywatch reboot star found himself trapped on the island when the world fell down. No longer able to skip gaily from Iceland to Peru with co-host Darin Olien – his companion on the globe-hopping first season of a show dedicated to exploring healthier, more sustainable ways to live – Efron decided to fly his crew to him instead, including director Ibrahim Hamdan and cinematographer Jeff Santos.
We get to see this Great Southern Land through the wide-eyed wonder of the Californian son infamously peed on for real by Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy, alongside vegan superfood promoter Olien, with the former offering peppy narration along the way.
They get off on the right foot with a Welcome to Country by Darug Elders who daub the pair in ochre during a smoking ceremony. The Uncles invite the entire crew to take part, and it’s pretty evident how much they are moved by this abundantly generous invitation. Talk of respecting the land we walk on, the resources we claim and the people we meet is the through-line that ties this show together.
Great chats with Dark Emu author Bruce Pascoe, in Melbourne, are dotted throughout the run, clueing up the hosts on the obscured narrative of thousands of years of agricultural practices observed on these lands. They see that in action in the Blue Mountains, meeting Indigenous leaders passing on their knowledge of bush tucker, including the Kangaroo grass that could have fed many a clueless coloniser who starved to death.
Travelling as much as possible by electric car, Efron and Olien try to walk the talk on treading lightly. They meet a bunch of folks working tirelessly to preserve endangered species and the environments they depend on, including those tracking fire-displaced koalas with a little help from poop-smelling pooch Smudge. ‘Man, these ladies really know their shit,’ Efron exclaims, while learning that koala scat is inoffensively musky compared to the noxious possum variety (yes, he has a good ol’ whiff).
It’s a hoot seeing the star, who shot Anthony Hayes’ environmental collapse dystopia Gold while down under, cack his pants on meeting shrieking, bone-chomping Tassie Devils, a creature only known to him from the cute Hanna-Barbera cartoons. This protection racket has led to the first mainland births of the animal in over 3,000 years.
There are stopovers at regenerative farms run along rewilding lines, breathing new life into once eroded soil and sparking flourishing ecosystems. A farmer who is often asked how she can eat an animal she knows responds, ‘How can you eat one you don’t?’ It’s a great point that ties back to the Welcome to Country asking us to take only what we need and pay respect to that sacrifice.
Olien, a vegan, sits out the butchering chat, but he’s overjoyed at a palette-melting salad containing 60 farm-grown veggies at micro-farm fed fine dining restaurant Brae that sits inland from the Great Ocean Road. There, chef Dan Hunter shares similar feelings with Pascoe, lamenting the lunacy of flying tomatoes across the globe when we can grow them in our own backyards. Later we meet lads making chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers from a fungi lab.
While the docuseries will probably play best overseas, with Tourism Australia no doubt thrilled at the visits to some remarkably beautiful spots, including canyons clustered with ancient trees, there’s plenty of scope for it sparking the imagination of local tourists too.
Despite my errant eyebrow, I found myself charmed by Efron and Olien’s unending gratefulness and lack of celebrity ego. There’s something genuinely lovely about their adventuresome frolics and wrangling with the Australia psyche a la Miriam Margolyes’ shows for the ABC.
Some of the fancier stuff is a bit out of reach of your ordinary punter wanting to lead a healthier, more sustainable life, for sure. Like Melbourne-based celebrity chef Joost Bakker, who was the focus of recent doco Greenhouse by Joost. As well-meaning as he clearly is, it’s somewhat blinkered to believe that the best way to save the planet is for us all to build our own zero-waste houses. A great idea, but how achievable is that on the average household budget?
It’s the most down-to-earth folks they meet along the way that connect most clearly. That’s epitomised by the penultimate instalment of this eight-episode run which wisely hands over narration duties to multiple First Nations Elders. They share their knowledge and perspectives on everything from spear fishing to the devastation of the Stolen Generation.
The repeated focus on sitting down with, listening to, and then helping amplify the voices of First Nations peoples is a reminder to us all that we can take simple steps towards great change. It’s not just woo-woo.
Down to Earth with Zac Efron: Down Under is currently streaming on Netflix