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Last night, the US version of Top Gear premiered (finally).

TV Review: US Top Gear

To know me is to know my deep and unabashed love of Top Gear.  Since I first discovered it several years ago, I have watched every episode BBC America has made available, I have read up on it, and I have made sure the DVDs are in my collection.  I have also followed with great enthusiasm (and sometimes consternation) the progress of the American version, which finally premiered last night on the History Channel.

This new US Top Gear is hosted by Tanner Foust, Rutledge Wood, and Adam Ferrara.  I think that those guys – and the producers of the series – have a tough job.  Top Gear, even if it isn’t huge in the States, is an incredibly popular show worldwide and has a devoted following here.  So, how close to the formula should the new show stick, and how much should they diverge from it?  Beyond that, the British series is blessed with great chemistry between the three hosts, how can any spinoff possibly hope to achieve that right out of the gate?

I did my best to watch the series premiere last night and to not compare it with its big brother, but found that task nearly impossible.  The US series sticks pretty closely by its British counterpart, but just isn’t as good… yet. 

Obviously the hosts simply don’t have the rapport with one another yet that Clarkson, Hammond, and May have, so let’s ignore that little bit.  It just wouldn’t be fair to expect it of the new show.

The series has opted to go with a very similar look and feel, and I think that’s a good call – one of the reasons British Top Gear is so great is because it looks incredible.  The cars are shot beautifully, the camera work is fantastic, and the editing is equally brilliant.  Whether or not you enjoy cars, you can enjoy watching the show because of how it looks and so it is a great idea for US Top Gear to mimic that.  On the other hand, much like the chemistry between the hosts, the look British Top Gear has takes an awfully long time to work out and perfect.  Consequently, while the new version tries to ape those aspects, it again comes up a little wanting.  The camera work isn’t a crisp and the filmed pieces feel as though they aren’t quite as polished as on the big brother version of the series.

Beyond that, every bit of stand-up dialogue in the studio and much of the voiceover simply didn’t work.  It is absolutely fine that the show renamed the “star in a reasonably priced car” segment “big star, little car,” but every single time Ferrara said that the segment was coming (or upon us), his copy had the exact same wording, “a segment we like to call…”  There are probably thousands of variations on that wording, but every time Ferrara had the exact same line of dialogue.  That’s troublesome.  Why would the producers not edit it just a little?  If they did and he repeatedly said it the same way, why would someone not talk to him about it?  It is that sort of thing that could have – and should have – been better for a series premiere. 

British Top Gear is also big on tape pieces, and last night the new show gave us two different ones.  The first was a car vs. helicopter thing, and was distinctly disappointing.  The basic concept was that a car had to make a loop in a town without the helicopter firing three virtual missiles at it.  The idea was perfect Top Gear, the execution wasn’t.  Frankly, by about  a third of the way through it, I was bored.  I didn’t see a world in which the car was ever going to win, even if Wood and Foust hadn’tCredit:  Jeremy Cowart been acting like a bunch of clowns.  So, if they were going to lose, they needed to lose big, and they didn’t, they just sort plodded along until it was finished.

Wood claimed that they shot the segment in his home town because it was the only place they found that would let them do it.  Well, that’s great, but then why did it look like you followed the rules of the road every single second?  If the town was letting you shoot the segment under the condition that you abided by the law, they weren’t really letting you do it and you needed to do it elsewhere (which, I think, is why when British Top Gear does such things they do it in the middle of nowhere).  And, not to harp too much on the voiceover again, the segment featured some of the worst puns I have ever heard on television.  There were definitely moments when I was thinking that the whole tape piece should have been buried in the graveyard they mistakenly drove through (seriously Rutledge Wood, you grew up there and couldn’t figure out how to take a loop that consisted of what, a dozen streets?).

The second taped piece focused on Lamborghinis, and comparing three different ones.  We actually got to hear the pros and cons of each different type and each host seemed to truly be rooting for his car and wanting to see the other two hosts lose.  It was far better than the car vs. helicopter segment.  There was a race, there were great shots of the cars, and it seemed as though the hosts had – or could definitely develop – a little bit of chemistry.  Honestly, that segment was enough to convince me that if these guys (both in front of and behind the camera) are given the opportunity to work out the kinks, they could make a great television show.

I will leave it to others to discuss the pros and cons of the US Top Gear test track and to delve into the more technical aspects of the car discussion; I don’t yet know enough about the track and the cars to speak knowledgeably about either.  I will however say one last thing that troubled me greatly – the apparent redoing with the new hosts of segments that Clarkson, Hammond, and May have already done.  In the piece on what to expect this season we saw that there will be a segment where the cars get filled with water and the hosts have to drive them around until all the water leaks out.  We’ve seen the British guys do that already and it was great.  I think that redoing such pieces make it all too easy to compare this show with that one, and I just don’t know that at this point it’s a wise move to push that comparison.

We’ll see, it could be that Foust, Wood, and Ferrara do it better than Clarkson, Hammond, and May, and then it will be a great moment for the new series.  If they don’t do it as well, however, they’re really just asking for trouble.

In the final summation, there were definitely some good moments last night.  There were also some that were distinctly mediocre and others which were downright poor.  With time, with patience, and with an audience that doesn’t turn too quickly on them, the US Top Gear could prove itself to be a worthy addition to the franchise.  Who knows, maybe they’ll even invite me to drive around their track.

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.

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