Last weekend I watched the premier episode of the BBC’s production of the US version of Top Gear. The History Channel is the host network and its basic form and format is familiar to anyone who has followed the original Top Gear from the UK.
A couple of years ago the BBC folks tried to Americanize the BBC version by having sections of the BBC version re-done with American English in mind and showed it on the Discovery channel. It certainly got the hardcore American fans attention, but then abruptly stopped while plans were developed to create a US-based version of the program.
Meanwhile the American fan base of the UK version has continued to grow and expand as cable and satellite offered the BBC-America channel. Even CBS’s 60 Minutes did a segment on the show. Pirated copies of Top Gear episodes have bounced around on YouTube (although they were yanked off by the BBC at various times). There are also web sites out there where fans have deposited copies of every decent episode and you can download or stream to your heart’s content.
So why do an American version? Apparently the BBC top brass felt that the US audience was having too much of a problem with the language barrier. If you watch long enough though you can learn to translate fairly effectively. A bonnet is what the islanders call a car’s hood, a boot is what they call the trunk, a spanner is the same as the tool we call a wrench. Windscreens are easy, they are windshields over here. Petrol is the same as gasoline. See, it’s not that hard really.
What really sets off the original series is the chemistry of the three hosts. They get along with each other but are very different from each other so when they are put into a situation concocted by the producers they are entertaining to watch and listen to. The quality of the video production is something that really sets the tone for the UK version of the show. They don’t do the typical American style of filming cars where the lenses are tight and the focal length is enormous. Instead they use a variety of wide lenses and filters with exceptional editing and cutting, together with very appropriate music creating a visually entertaining package.
The Stig is integral with series as a silent, anonymous character that is only there to display robotically precise driving skills that allow “scientifically accurate” lap comparisons of showcased vehicles around the large autocross layout, designed with the help of Lotus, laid out at the airport where the show is filmed.
The formula is basically this:
Have one or two of the personalities take out a high end or exotic car on the runways and film them drifting around corners, screaming down the taxiways, all the while commentating their opinions of the ride.
Put the three of them on a ridiculous challenge of some type involving motor vehicles. This can be them purchasing a type of car or truck on a limited budget – sometimes in a foreign country, and then driving them to various challenges.
Having a guest celebrity (or two) take to the test track in a “reasonably priced car” (i.e, underpowered piece of shit) and see what kind of lap times can be achieved. It also gives the host a chance to spend some time interviewing said celebrity.
Interspersing these events are news segments and debates on what vehicles are cool or not.
The results are moments that are sometimes forgettable, often interesting, or absolutely riveting. The hour long segments are almost always entertaining and occasionally exceptional enough to be considered classics.
Now back to the US version:
The formula used in this show is a cookie cutter duplicate of the UK version that is only half-baked.
It is shot at an airport (wow – what a surprise!)
Three personalities, Tanner Foust, Adam Ferrara, and Rutledge Wood (who is he?), host the show. Tanner is an accomplished stunt driver and has competed in X-Games “rally” driving. These guys are so uninspired it puts you to sleep.
There is even a Stig, whose introduction on the first show was forgetable to say the least. His driving on the track was almost equal to his introduction.
There was a guest driver that got in a reasonably priced car and set the first lap time. It was so interesting that I’ve forgotten his name and the result.
There was a chase scene with Tanner driving a Dodge Viper that was “trying” to escape a military Cobra helicopter that was armed with electronic missiles, while driving around the streets of some poor township that was talked into allowing the stunt to take place in its city limits. Boy, this economy has certainly turned some municipalities desperate.
There are more episodes scheduled to be shown. I doubt I will get past the first three. Why? Because the cast is so uninspired. They follow the scripts, but that is about it. It is like they don’t get it. They just don’t understand what Top Gear is all about. I guess I would put the blame on the director or producer.
What does the American version need? Conan O’Brian would make a huge difference. Yeah, I know – who could afford him. But surely there is someone out there with his energy level and imagination that could add some inspiration to this show.
Dan Neil of the WSJ would be fantastic as one of the talents on this show. His writing style is consistently at the top and he does well in front of a camera. Porsche Spyder ala WSJ
Randy Pobst would make a fantastic Stig and it might be nice if the American version wasn’t anonymous like the UK version.
When the UK version of Top Gear first came about it was as boring as Motorweek, but then Clarkson got the brilliant idea of injecting enough boyish testosterone to make it interesting and entertaining. The re-formatted show had Hammond and another bloke that was replaced with James May a year later. The format worked because it was fun to watch and because the fun the hosts were having was being shared not just executed so that others could watch.
Should there even be a Top Gear US version?
It’s not like the UK version is going down the crapper. It still has millions of viewers across the globe and there are enough Americans that can understand English to form a substantial fan base across the pond. So why create an American version?
That is the question that the producers should really be asking themselves and I really think there is a good reason for an American version. I think it could work.
The US has some fantastic roads that Americans should get to know. There are plenty of car places to see in the US. There is America’s loneliest highway in Nevada, the Tail of the Dragon in NC and TN. European cars are not just for the Europeans, after all, BMW has a manufacturing plant in Spartanburg, SC, with a fantastic test/training track that would be entertaining to feature in an episode. There are racing personalities, historical race tracks and much more that would be fun and educational to feature.
Do I think this version of Top Gear will make it? Nope, and its too bad because it shouldn’t just be a copy of the original with an American accent, nor should it be another Motorweek. Not when it can be a larger canvas to the original with some real spark.
Note to the producers: get some inspired talent PLEASE!