To be a Disney Channel star during the early aughts was to be comfortable playing with both extreme absurdity and extreme banality. Disney churned out dozens of high-concept shows and movies, the premises of which included: abandoned mermaids, cloning oneself, the travails of high-school theater, body-swapping, enjoying hockey, living in space, owning a horse, and battling a sentient house. For many years, Selena Gomez and Zac Efron — two of the Disney Channel’s early mainstays — each represented one end of the channel’s vast spectrum: on Wizards of Waverly Place, Gomez played the young daughter in a family of down-low wizards who lived in New York City; in the High School Musical franchise, Efron played a normal human boy who just wanted to play basketball while also doing amateur theater.
I’d like to think that, if nothing else, this time spent navigating the destabilizing world of Disney prepared Gomez and Efron to take on their current projects, both of which are equal parts insane and quotidian and have absolutely nothing to do with their previous work. Beginning today, Gomez will be hosting an HBO Max cooking show titled Selena + Chef. Over on Netflix, Efron is hosting Down to Earth With Zac Efron, a travel show about sustainability. Fascinatingly, both admit up front that they are entirely unqualified to be hosting their respective series. In the first few minutes of her show, Gomez says she “loves to eat” but does not know how to cook, and therefore has asked a series of famous chefs to teach her how to do so over Zoom as she quarantines in her new house. Over the course of Down to Earth’s eight (!) 45-plus minute (!!) episodes, Efron also makes it clear that his co-host Darin Olien — a so-called “superfood expert” whose actual qualifications are never elucidated — is theoretically on hand to lend the series an ethos that Efron himself lacks. (Darin does not lend the show any ethos.) In other words, both are hosting these shows for no real reason other than money and/or because they just felt like it.
I respect it. I also fear it as precedent. We are at the top of a very slippery slope that will likely end in Demi Lovato hosting American Pickers. But powerless to stop it, we might as well enjoy it. Which is why I watched all of Down to Earth and the first three episodes of Selena + Chef that premiered today in order to figure out, based on a series of highly scientific categories that I just made up, which of these two erstwhile Disney stars did it — that is, hosting a totally random TV show for no obvious reason — better?
Tightness of concept: The central point of Efron’s series is still murky to me, even though I’ve seen every single minute of it. Essentially, Efron is having a quarter-life crisis and wants to figure out how to give meaning to his life, and he does so by traveling around the world, learning how other countries are better than America in almost every possible way. He swims in hot springs; he makes chocolate; he tastes different types of water; he skateboards. The concept is so broad as to be nearly meaningless. On the other hand, Gomez’s show is incredibly tight: a famous chef helps her cook because she needs to feed herself during quarantine or she will die. Winner: Gomez.
Randomness of concept: As we’ve established, both of these shows are whimsically random. They are the famous-person equivalent of me calling up a dog breeder and asking them if I can take over their business starting tomorrow, having held a dog a handful of times in my life. Gomez has never done anything with food before in a public setting, except for, presumably, eating it. Efron has never before displayed any kind of interest or expertise in Icelandic nuclear power plants and their various functions. Winner: Tie.
Actual service value to viewers: Considering the fact that many of Down to Earth’s viewers are not legally allowed to visit any other country right now, their main takeaway from Efron’s show will be that we need to be thinking harder about power plants, and that water actually has different flavors. Meanwhile, Gomez’s show is hypothetically very useful, but fails on the most basic of functional levels. Though ingredient lists pop up on the screen as Gomez begins to cook, the show does not provide measurements or cooking times or kitchen equipment or any other kind of actually important information, should you want to cook alongside her. Even so, I have a slightly better sense of how to make a French omelette now than I did yesterday. Winner: Gomez.
General hosting charisma: As a host, Efron projects a sort of gentle sadness mixed with a genuine desire to connect with strangers, including the women who run the Icelandic power plant. He says “wow” a lot and seems visibly humbled by the things he does not know about power plants. Alternatively, Gomez projects quiet fear. She also sounds like she has a cold, which is a bit concerning considering the timing. In the first episode, Gomez clashes rather uncomfortably with French chef Ludo Lefebvre, whom she accuses of yelling at her (he is sort of yelling at her, but more in a French way than an angry way). At one point, Gomez tells him, “It’s very hard to understand you,” which made me nervous. Things go better in episodes two and three, when she bonds more naturally and sweetly over boys and matcha chocolate chip cookies with chefs Antonia Lofaso and Candice Kumai. Winner: Efron.
Length of episodes: Zac’s episodes are roughly an hour long, which is absolutely unhinged. Selena’s are a nice 25 minutes. Winner: Gomez.
Outfits: As I outlined in my important piece, “Towards a Working Theory of Zac Eron’s Down to Earth Looks,” Efron’s outfits are a fascinating glimpse into a roiling psyche and the nuances (or lack thereof) of corporate sponsorship. Gomez’s outfits, on the other hand, are a bit hard to pin down. In the first episode, she wears pajamas; in the second, she wears denim and lipstick, puncturing my suspension of disbelief that this is truly a “quarantine cooking show.” She also cooks and eats ramen in a white T-shirt, which is very intense to watch. Winner: Efron.
Relatability: Gomez just moved into her house and seems to have no idea what she owns or where things are. When Lofaso asks, “Do you have a dutch oven?” Gomez says, “What’s that?” while standing in front of two dutch ovens. This is not relatable. However, at one point, she does open up about her own mental health in a way that feels authentic and moving. Efron speaks often about his own frustration with the vapidity of Hollywood, and I believe he’s truly struggling with his own identity and purpose. But then he goes on to try various water flavors with Anna Kendrick at a fancy French restaurant with the help of a “water sommelier.” Winner: Tie (neither are relatable).
Side characters: Efron’s co-host Darin is the sort of man who might corner you at a party and then four hours later you find yourself robotically nodding along to his stories about how he was an Amazonian warrior in his past life. In other words, I find him absolutely terrifying as an individual and a concept. He and Efron also seem to slowly grow to hate each other over the course of the show, which is fun to track. On the other hand, Gomez’s show occasionally features her roommates Liz and Raquelle and grandparents, all of whom seem lovely. Raquelle is particularly friendly and often helps Gomez with things she doesn’t want to do, like chop up an entire octopus. Winner: Gomez.
Breaking of the fourth wall: Both shows inexplicably commit to the bit of proving that they are TV shows as opposed to real life. At one point, Zac has a tense interaction with a French national over his mic placement; he also offers his cameraman a piece of bread. Gomez, meanwhile, gets even more meta, adjusting her cameras, stressing out over how she “doesn’t know the script” for the show, and admitting she is “nervous” before filming. Both shows also mercilessly mock their hosts’ incompetence: When Gomez claims she cannot find something in her kitchen or doesn’t have it, little arrows pop up pointing to the aforementioned item. When Efron claims he can’t find a water pump in France (long story), a similar device is utilized to point out the water pump and thus his ignorance. I don’t like any of this — it feels like a cheap and ineffective attempt at relatability, which, as we’ve already established, is impossible in these circumstances. Winner: Tie (both shows do it badly).
Do-gooder component: Both shows include some sort of charitable aspect. Gomez asks each chef to talk about a nonprofit that’s important to them, which she then donates to. Efron’s entire show is, thematically, about doing good for the planet — but we don’t ever see him pony up that cash. Winner: Gomez.
Too-obvious promo angle: Efron exclusively wears one brand of clothing the entire time, which I refuse to give further publicity to in this esteemed article. Gomez’s show is scored entirely by her own music. At least her thing makes sense from a personal branding perspective. Winner: Gomez.
Hair: Efron’s hair, ever-changing and often in direct correlation to his facial hair, is stunning and worthy of academic study. Why does he, for example, shave his entire face while in LA, go fully bearded in Iceland, and poof his hair out in France? Gomez’s hair looks good — usually it’s pulled up and away from her face — but it’s not inherently fascinating or psychologically revealing in the same way. Winner: Efron.
Best episode: Efron’s best episode is the show’s finale, “Iquitos,” when he is put inside a little tent made of leaves for what seems like hours and nobody tells him how long he’ll be in there. Of the three episodes I saw of Gomez’s show, I liked the second one best: She learns how to make seafood tostadas from Lofaso, who is charming and delightful. I would watch this entire show if every episode starred Gomez and Lofaso. Winner: Gomez.
Worst episode: Efron goes to an Icelandic power plant. Is this…cinema? Gomez and Lefevbre clash culturally as he attempts to teach her to make a French omelette. Winner: Efron.
Things I thought about for a long time after the show ended: I am still thinking about whether Efron slept with the cute English chef who he clearly flirts with as she makes him a Thai dish in her home. She was married but they vibed nonetheless. I am also still a little worried about his identity crisis and I hope that he has a good therapist. As for Gomez, I am still thinking about her iridescent rainbow knives, which are remarked upon by each chef. (Lofaso calls them “Coachella knives.”) Despite this, Gomez never offers any kind of information on why she has them or where to buy them. I also cannot stop thinking about the moment where Gomez, sprinkling nutmeg on one of her dishes, says, “Do I like nutmeg?” and her grandma says, “Yes, you do.” Winner: Gomez.
Overall winner: While Efron’s show is more random and perhaps more enjoyable on an episode-to-episode basis, due to his hair and the simmering below-surface tension between him and Darin, Gomez’s show is slightly more useful In These Times. It taught me to “cut on the bias.” It’s also much, much shorter, which is really important.