Flop Gear USA?
By Charles Krome
Well, that was anti-climactic. After months of buzz and years of anticipation, the U.S. version of the BBC’s Top Gear finally debuted last night on the History Channel, and I for one was underwhelmed. The original program has become something of an icon among a certain swathe of Anglophilic gearheads, based on its combination of wacky English humor and the opportunity it presents to see a wide range of vehicles get put through their paces each week. Admittedly, I’m not much of a fan: Jeremy Clarkson is the definition of insufferable, and his two co-hosts, Richard Hammond and James May, leave me cold as well.
But I have to say the Brits have it all over the troika heading up Top Gear USA, which brings me to complaint No. 1 about the show: Rutledge Wood, Tanner Foust and Adam Ferrera seemed like amiable enough guys last night, but they project an aura of being too young to be taken seriously as experts, on the one hand, and on the other, they didn’t bring enough energy to be taken seriously as enthusiasts. Part of the problem, no doubt, is that the History Channel seems to be struggling to get a handle on who makes up the show’s audience.
That is, is the network trying to attract auto enthusiasts who already have a relatively firm grasp on the industry or casual fans looking to learn more about the wonderful world of the automobile? It’s hard to split the difference without one or the other groups losing interest, and there was a fair amount of that going on during the show last night.
Which leads me to complaint No. 2: The U.S. show is broadcast as if the original did not exist. That might not be a problem for the aforementioned casual fans, but it made for some awkward moments last night for me. Consider the introduction of “the Stig.” This is the anonymous driver who remains hidden behind his crash helmet while hot-lapping the show’s cars, helping provide expert insight into some of the world’s best super cars, among others. Over across the pond, the role of the Stig is a cultural phenomenon that jumped to new heights this summer when driver Ben Collins was outed as the man behind the mask.
Top Gear USA naturally has its own Stig, but his low-key, off-hand intro last night must have been mystifying to any viewers who had never seen the BBC program, while to those who have, like me, the same lack of explanation made it seem as if the U.S. folks were trying to pull a fast one by stealing the concept with nary a nod to the original.
Then there’s the content itself. I was admittedly still settling in when the show started, but the first vehicle I saw on the screen was a vintage Cobra, then there was some kind of segue to the Dodge Viper, and I was getting geeked for some serious snake-on-snake action. But when I was finally able to focus all my meager attention on the screen, the guys weren’t talking about the Cobra and Viper going head to head; they were introducing a segment in which the latter was trying to outrun a Cobra attack helicopter. Things didn’t get too much better as the night progressed, either: Another debate over which is the best bull to come out of the house of Lamborghini? Yawn.
I’m not counting Top Gear USA out entirely, but at this stage, a more appropriate title for the show would be one that matches the program I wish I watched last night: The Walking Dead.