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Blu-ray Review: Top Gear – The Complete Season 17

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By the 17th season of a television show, one would assume that the producers and stars (in this case, hosts, specifically) would have everything down pat.  One would assume that people working on the show would know their strengths and weaknesses and what will work and what won’t.  That isn’t to say that the entire thing will manage to feel fresh and new necessarily, just that everyone knows their place.  One would certainly be right in these assumptions with Top Gear‘s 17th season.

The series’ strength lies in its having the three men at its center—James May, Jeremy Clarkson, and Richard Hammond—test cars and ideas in ways one wouldn’t normally think sensible.  The less good segments are the ones where they just prattle on about a car and its statistics on their racetrack in mundane fashion.  Happily, they don’t do this very often.  Even when a piece starts out that way, they end up doing something completely outlandish with it all, and that’s when the fun kicks in.  Quite regularly said fun involves near-injury and/or pure stupidity.

Season 17 of the show features a scant six episodes, but much enjoyment is had during that time.  And, it isn’t all pure ridiculousness.  Absolutely, one will find certain bits of insanity, like Jeremy’s over-the-top tribute for the 50th anniversary of the Jaguar E-type,  but there are some actual intelligent moments as well. 

In what may be the best mainly serious segment of the season, Jeremy and James try out some battery powered vehicles.  Clarkson has, of course, long been vocal about not liking such cars, but rather than being silly and complaining about a lack of power, he is able to explicitly show and tell the audience just why he feels as though electric vehicles are not yet ready for primetime and may never be.  His argument is clear, it is concise, and he may even be right.  Naturally, he and May go on to offer up some stupid suggestions after that, but before they become silly they do show exactly why they’re there – these guys are smart men who know about cars and can (when required) think through real problems.

The overall best segment of the season (no qualifier here like “mainly serious”) features the three hosts trying to come up with a solution to the expense of rail travel in England.  This involves them converting a car into an train engine and throwing some camper vans behind it for passengers.  It is the sort of brilliant, utterly inspired stupidity which the series is best at.  Here is a real problem—rail travel is expensive—which they are then able to turn into a complete joke in ways that no one would have ever imagined possible.  It is nearly impossible to watch the segment and not laugh.

In terms of bonus features, we are treated to some extra interviews as well as a couple of new intros and outros and James May testing launch control on a Nissan GT-R.  There is, and time-wise it’s nearly half of the total length of the bonus features, a first season episode of the U.S. version of Top Gear as well.  That may have been a bad choice for inclusion because while it certainly helps promote the U.S. expansion of the franchise, said U.S. expansion is nowhere near as good as the original.  U.S. Top Gear has gotten better since it premiered (season three is currently airing), but the first season is exceptionally disappointing.  Giving viewers a taste of that show alongside the far better British original only serves to throw into stark relief the superiority of the British show and may convince people not to give the American version another shot.

As for the audio and visual elements, we are given a stereo audio track here, and it really does quite a good job showcasing all the various car noises, train noises, and songs the show features.  It is, for the most part, well-mixed, although on one occasion we did notice a drastic drop in the volume in the midst of voiceover narration.  Okay, it isn’t a surround track, but it doesn’t appear that the show was originally shot for television in surround sound.  One of the biggest things Top Gear has going for it as a series is its fantastic visual style, and that comes across beautifully on the blu-rays as paint jobs and stitching on cars as well as the wrinkles on our presenters’ faces are exceptionally clear.  Those people in this country who don’t get BBC America in HD (and that is a large number of people) will be quite impressed by just how much better the show looks in high definition than in standard.

There are certainly moments during Top Gear‘s 17th series where it feels as though the show just isn’t as fresh as it might be (one segment with the guys helping destroy buildings feels particularly staged and lacks a strong motivation).  However, there is still plenty of sheer brilliance, the guests (including Alice Cooper and Rowan Atkinson) are fantastic, and it proves to still be a great television series.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.