Top Gear America – TG in the USA

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!

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6 Responses to Top Gear America – TG in the USA

  1. Tim says:

    For what it’s worth, the press who have supposedly seen several of the season’s episodes all say that the hosts’ chemistry improves. Heck, even Adam Ferrara said that it only gets better (on his Facebook page) 😉

    And from what I hear, the chemistry between the Top Gear UK stars took some time to grow as well. These fellows have a glimmer of hope.

  2. Noel says:

    Jim,
    Your comments echo exactly what I and several others noted on Saabnet. These guys all need personality transplants and a lot more time in front of the camera. It was obvious they don’t know one another and were really winging it. All I can say is that it can only improve. Must have had the director and producers wincing with every move.

    It would be really good if they didn’t do lame stuff like the car vs. helicopter thing. We all know that a military aircraft against a car is only going to turn out one way, unless the car goes and hides in a cave. Yawn.

    Having Buzz Aldrin drive the Suzuki was a joke. And he didn’t even go fast. Yawn, snore.

    Then came the Lambos. Not too bad, but clearly these guys, with the possible exception of Foust, had no knowledge of Lamborghinis except that they are superfast exotic cars. Coulda, shoulda woulda been interesting. But, what??? The show is over?? Wha happened?

    I shoot video as part of my business. Having good on-cam talent is important, especially for this kind of show, but the three stooges they have on U.S. Top Gear could make this a much of a non-starter as a dead battery on the grid at LeMans.

    Heck, Jim and I and any of our gear head pals could do a better job.

  3. Lee K says:

    My initial reaction to the first episode: lame! You are exactly right about the total lack of chemistry between the hosts, which is what makes the UK Top Gear so appealing. Even my wife, who cares very little about cars, enjoys watching Clarkson, May, and the Hamster cut up on each other. It is what is sorely missing in the US version.
    Why have a anonymous driver called The Stig? That is a term that Jeremy used in his boarding school to refer to new underclassmen. It has no meaning here in America. How about, The Unknown Driver? Or, just Bubba, the Mysterious Racing Driver? Give him some differentiation from Brian Ross…oops, I mean the Stig.
    Tanner Faust is actually not too bad and will perhaps grow more comfortable in the role if they give it another season. I would replace Rutledge Wood with PJ O’Rourke as the Plucky Comic Relief (at least PJ has some automotive journalism experience) and perhaps Jack Baruth to replace Ferrara. You want people with strong opinions and clever with the one liners.
    Now, episode two started with the finest ten minutes of television I’ve ever seen. But then again, that’s because it featured an Evo X. 🙂
    To be fair, the show needs to be given a chance to iron out its problems and crank up the chemistry quotient. Perhaps it will do so by episode 10. If it doesn’t, then its Cancellation City.

  4. Rodney says:

    I agree with you as well. I watched the first show and I too was very disappointed. After watching the show I went out to did a Youtube search and saw that most the comments out there were some of the same and even worst. Most, people commented they hated it, as I did myself. I do, however hope that they can get their act together. There is a lot of automotive history here in the US that a show like this can explore. And, in spite of what the British may think there are lot of nice roads here to be explored. I like to see a show that is Top Gear of America and not some knock-off carbon copy.

    As to my suggestion for the Stig, get Ken Block.

  5. Noel says:

    Second having Ken Block as the Stig.

    I don’t think having the Stig be anonymous is essential. It’s just a gimmick. It just has to be a real professional driver who can handle a variety of cars (which leaves out most NASCAR drivers).

    Maybe an Indycar driver who’s no longer in the absolute top tier, someone like Davey Hamilton, would be great. These guys are all so far above the level of even seriously good enthusiasts that they could set great lap times.

  6. Rick Holland says:

    Jim…you are spot on as always. The chemistry of Jeremy, Richard, and James is probably irreplaceable. When I finish watching the UK show I have laughed, learned, and been entertained to the highest degree. It is by a long shot my favorite show.
    Unfortunately the US version has done none of these things to make it worth my time. It may improve with time but I do not think it will make it. I hope I am wrong. Cheers and Happy Holidays to all.

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