U.S. Top Gear Inside Look
By Matt Adair
The British Broadcasting Company’s “Top Gear” franchise is a global phenomenon, with an estimated 350 million viewers tuning in weekly across the globe. Here in the States, though, we’ve had to make do with YouTube downloads of the episodes if we didn’t get BBC America in our basic cable package, and even then the shows were delayed long after the original airing in Britain. This is about to change as the BBC and History Channel bring us their own, uniquely American version, set to debut on Nov. 21. The question on everybody’s mind is…will it be any good?
For those of you unfamiliar with Top Gear (though, that’s hard to imagine if you’re a true car geek), the format is relatively simple. Cars are reviewed, tested, compared, automotive news items are discussed and celebrities come by for interviews. But as with most things, the devil’s in the details. The cinematography is breathtaking and clever, the music is perfectly timed for drama and the three hosts, Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond have a chemistry and humor that’s hard to describe. Indeed, it’s so well put together that one need not even be a car enthusiast to enjoy the program; my mom watches it. Seriously.
The U.S. has had car-related shows in the past, most notably the long-running, but suicidal tendency-inducing Motor Week. Speed TV has had a couple of their own programs, but they have been about as exciting as watching clear coat dry on a Camry. Will the producers from History Channel be able to break the slump? Can they capture lightning in the bottle the way the U.K. original has? It was with these questions in my mind that I went into the Las Vegas Hilton Theatre, which Top Gear/History Channel had reserved for their press preview last week.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, USTG (as I shall now refer to U.S. Top Gear) has closely emulated the British format. It too has three hosts; Tanner Foust, champion Drifter and automotive personality. Adam Ferrara, a comedian and actor on the TV show “Rescue Me.” Rounding out the group is Rutledge Wood, an Speed TV commentator. Like the UK version, none of these three seem very alike. Also like the UK version, that dissimilarity seems to work on screen.
Of chief concern to many Top Gear fans is whether or not the hosts will be able to voice their true opinions about the products they’re reviewing, as on the British show. If a car is as appealing as a steaming pile of dog vomit, the hosts of the UK version loudly exclaim it as such. Can the US attempt maintain their editorial objectivity, regardless of who’s advertising on the network? The answer? Yes. In interviews with both the producers and presenters, we were assured of this. In an almost extroverted display to show that the leash was off, Adam Ferrera dropped the “F-bomb” at least four times in the Q&A session, and as many times in the episode we were shown (though bleeped).
After watching a roughly hour long “rough cut” of the first few episodes (they have ten in the can, but no promises for a second season), I can tell you that USTG has gotten far more right than wrong. There seems to be a genuine camaraderie among the hosts, the quality of film work is top notch, if not quite on par with the UK version, and the humor is intact. As an initial attempt, as a litmus test, I think they’ve done an outstanding job.
There are kinks to work out; the in-car footage of the drivers is so shaky it’s hard to tell what’s going on sometimes. Some of the “challenges” the hosts go through seem even more contrived than the TGUK (which says a lot), but they got the basics right. A conversation with Tanner Foust left me hugely impressed that the producers are dedicated to emulate, yet not copy, the original, giving USTG a distinct, unique American flavor while remaining true to the recipe. As a foundation, it’s a fantastic start, one that can be built on and, in time, hopefully become as much as an institution as the original. In short, they’ve done it.
And on that bombshell….