Celebrity-fronted docuseries like Zac Efron’s may attract viewers, but they prove how few A-listers can compete with Attenborough
The Greatest Showman star's documentary debut, like those of some A-listers before him, is entertaining but far from focused, says Lauren Morris.
When Zac Efron's newest Netflix venture hit the platform on Friday, fans of the actor were both equally surprised and delighted to find it wasn't another scantily-clad romcom or a serial killer biopic, but an environmental travel series.
Down to Earth with Zac Efron shows how the now-bearded actor has come a long way since his High School Musical days – quite literally as he journeys to the likes of Iceland, France, Costa Rica and London – to find healthier, eco-friendly alternatives for producing food, water and energy. "Change has to start somewhere," he says in the trailer. "Maybe it's time we all change."
Efron is the latest cinematic star to indeed make a change – from blockbuster hunk to globe-trotting documentary presenter – and while his docuseries debut has thus far proved immensely popular (Down to Earth is the sixth most-watched title on Netflix UK since it's release), it perfectly demonstrates how many actors-turned-presenters are more amateur than Attenborough on the non-fiction front.
While the series' trailer heavily emphasises the environmental angle of Efron's travels, the show feels unfocussed. In the first episode, we see the actor travel to Iceland to bake rye bread by volcanic springs, design chocolate bars, eat Michelin-starred reindeer tartare and have an "ice and fire" massage – activities you're more likely to find on a nordic mini-break than an environmental expedition.
It's also unclear why exactly Efron has decided to undertake this world-wide adventure – he doesn't appear to show much interest in eco-friendly living and fails to provide much of an educational commentary whilst undertaking his fun, tourist-y tasks. In fact, the little analysis he provides throughout the series is littered with fratboy vocabulary, with "dude", "gnarly", "woah", "holy s***" and "sick" frequently exclaimed by the actor across all eight episodes.
Along for the ride is friend and "wellness expert" Darin Olien, who you expect to counterbalance Efron's excitable puppy-like energy with mature, health-orientated critique, but he's not much help in that regard. The 41-year-old's nutritional knowledge is never really the focus and instead, he seems to act as a giddy sounding board for The Greatest Showman actor's offhand comments.
While the hipster-looking Efron brings a fun and entertaining enthusiasm to this environmental travel series, viewers are more likely to tune in for the muscle-bound screen hunk, than the eco-friendly analysis he's meant to be providing.
Efron isn't the only film star whose documentary debut was watched by many, but praised by few. Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle docuseries The Goop Lab landed on Netflix in January, which saw the actress and her wellness brand's employees explore "out-there" methods of healing.
Each episode of the eight-part series looks at alternatives approaches to wellbeing, from the use of psychedelic drugs in mental health treatment to embracing the psychic powers within. Although the show's trailer implied that Paltrow featured heavily throughout, in most episodes, the Oscar-winning actress would interview the Goop employees who underwent a particular treatment or technique, with the only wellness experiment Paltrow did herself being an anti-ageing blood facial and a five-day fasting regime.
While the docuseries drew in Netflix subscribers, critics panned the show, particularly for promoting some practices considered to be pseudoscience by medical professionals – namely, energy healing and mediumship. In fact, the head of the NHS, Sir Simon Stevens, condemned the series whilst expressing concern over fake news spreading globally, adding: "People's natural concern for their health, and particularly that of their loved ones, makes this particularly fertile ground for quacks, charlatans, and cranks."
Despite the dodgy wellness advice, which some critics labelled as an "informercial" for the Goop brand, Gwyneth Paltrow's series was entertaining and hugely watchable – much like Down to Earth with Zac Efron. However, both series are far from equal in any way to the work of great documentary presenters like David Attenborough, Louis Theroux or even Stacey Dooley.
That's not to say that all docuseries fronted by A-list actors can't compete with the likes of Planet Earth. Leonardo DiCaprio has a reputation for producing and narrating hard-hitting documentaries about climate change (The 11th Hour), the animal agricultural industry (Cowspiracy) and the ivory trade (The Ivory Game), while Idris Elba presented Mandela, My Dad and Me – a documentary which followed the Luther star's experience playing the South African leader whilst grieving for his own father.
However, entertaining series like Efron's and Paltrow's which consider themselves to be educational should be taken with a pinch of salt. Following a celebrity across the world makes for positively fun and enjoyable viewing for many, particularly fans of the actor involved or viewers looking for a light watch. However, for those wanting a thoughtful and concentrated look at the big issues affecting the world today, such as climate change, series like Zac Efron's aren't worth the watch.