Top Gear‘s History Channel incarnation (official site)arrived this past Sunday (to decent if unspectacular ratings), and the gents have added it to the Tag Team circulation. Consider yourself rewarded!
Your hosts: Nick Nunziata, Renn Brown, Jeremy Butler, and David Oliver.
Nick: Top Gear is my favorite show on television, the British
incarnation that is. The combination of really cutting-edge editing and
photography, actual knowledge, truly fun approaches to their content,
and three interesting and engaging presenters makes for a winning mix
that can’t be duplicated or replicated.
So someone tried.
Before we go into detail, please tell me where you stand on Top Gear as a
man so we can delve into this new version and idea of expectations.
Renn: I’ve seen maybe two episodes of the UK show, both in your presence Nick
(back in the old Smoker’s Paradise days) and I loved them. It was
obvious even from that small sample that the fun stemmed from the cars,
the photography, the cumulative history/in-jokes of the series, and most
of all the charm of the hosts (I believe Jeremy Clark was front and
center of what I watched). I come from a family of auto-manufacturers-
I’ve got a dozen close relatives that make their living in some form or
fashion related to cars, and half of those worked for Ford actually
making them (including my father, and his father before him, all the way
back to the days we were moving ass around on gentle dinosaurs).
I found myself pretty damn excited to watch the show when you
mentioned that it was impending, so I was definitely a favorable
gentleman going into the first episode.
Jeremy: Other than a few Youtubed segments here and there, I’ve mainly had a
name-only recognition of the UK Show. I really enjoyed what I did see
of it – thought it was fun and a cut above the typical car porn fare I’d
grown up with – both in entertainment and life. Surrounded by
mechanics on all sides of the family, it was either get sucked in or
become desensitized to the whole affair. I ended up choosing the
latter, as I never could be bothered to give a damn about whatever the
hell an exhaust manifold was. But aside from my very first vehicle
being a big brown pickup truck, I’ve been an American Sportscar guy (two
Camaros and a Mustang) my entire driving career, so the whole
phenomenon definitely has it’s appeal to me. I didn’t care what
specifically an exhaust manifold did, but I sure as shit loved making it
(and everything else I barely only knew the name of) work on those long
stretches of rural country road when I was a dumbass teenager.
And that’s why I got into what little of the UK Top Gear I saw – it
didn’t focus so much on the ins and outs of the mechanics, but the sheer
fun of driving one of these beasts. Plus Nick’s enthusiasm is
infectious and it’s easy to appreciate high-production values, whatever
the niche. I was definitely curious to see what we were able to do with
I’ve seen the UK show extensively. And what I think is great
about it, in addition to what appeals to guys – the hot cars,
the juvenile behavior and batshit crazy stunts they do – is that the
show is equally accessible to everybody. My wife loves the
show as much as I do, and she wouldn’t know torque from a
turbocharger. The camaraderie of Clarkson, Hammond and May
isn’t some manufactured TV bullshit. These guys are genuinely
great friends and that comes across in spades in every
episode. The stunts, location bits and races (which are
usually friggin’ incredible) are produced TV pieces of course, but the
trio’s friendship and willingness to screw each other over in good
nature and fun and laugh at each other’s expense isn’t. These
guys represent us if we and our closest friends had access to the most
phenomenal toys in the world.
Nick: And so comes the American version, something I find akin to when a
really great restaurant franchises its concept out. It looks right.
It has the right names. But the magic is lost.
Don’t get me wrong, Top Gear is a big brand. It’s not some
hole-in-the-wall niche thing. It’s one of the most seen shows there
is. But you can’t just put anyone up on stage regardless of how much
they know about cars and expect that the same energy is going to
happen. You also can’t expect it to happen overnight on the first
show. But when they ‘cover’ the vibe to the nth detail (the Stig
poster hanging, the Power Lap wall, the ‘Celebrity in a cheap car’
idea) there has to be confidence and an approach that justifies the
new program. It’s not like the original show is in Arabic. It’s
English. From the nation that invented it.
What this felt like was a facsimile. Like when Entourage did their
Comic Con episode. The logos were right, but no.
But that Cobra helicopter brings an awful lot of value to ANYTHING.
Renn: Yeah, I have to admit to enjoying the episode a lot. These guys aren’t
the kind of electrifying hosts that make this special and engrossing
immediately the same way the other show did, but starting things off
with that helicopter, the triple-Lamborghini’s, and the distinctly
American Viper was a good call. Also- almost all of those aforementioned
auto-inclined family members live in Griffin, GA, so that was a very
bizarre thing to watch happen in that little town (even though they
showed mostly the run-down shit parts of it).
I think the key elements of the cars and the photography are still
just as strong and compelling for a fun watch, but yeah, at this point
I’m much more inclined to start chowing down on the TON of UK episodes
than just pick it all up with the American version.
Jeremy: When it comes to the American version, my limited exposure to the UK
aside, I certainly felt like they were trying to recapture that sense of
fun. “Trying,” being the operative word here, in the sense that at
some things they wildly succeeded – the helicopter chase was lovely –
but with some things they failed. Every single thing “on set” fell flat
and seemed like it just immediately killed the momentum of the show. A
lot of the humor felt forced, lazy or just ridiculously juvenile, but,
honestly, it becomes something to overlook. The photography and editing
here is indeed first-cabin. The footage of Aldrin racing that little
Suzuki were almost as enthralling as the guys white-smoking that Viper
What we got with the first episode was a show that knew exactly how
to capitalize on how much fun driving can be. What they need to work on
from here (and this is more a suggestion than a complaint as it does
indeed take time for teamups like this to find a groove) is getting us
on board with how much fun the SHOW can be. Driving fast cars is one
thing – the cars speak for themselves – it’s the segment bridges and the
interconnecting elements that need to be beefed up.
Agreed, the production value of the location bits were top notch, just
as the UK’s versions are. I don’t mind them trying to recreate
so effectively the feel and look of the show. For the
location pieces, that’s choice; for the stage, that’s fine as
well. Although when I see it so faithfully reproduced, I look
for the big three to show up and instead we get their American
counterparts. And as good as the opening helicopter bit was,
it could have been that much better. I don’t buy at all the
fact that Rutledge’s home town in Georgia was the ideal place to do that
bit. They should have chosen a place where the Viper (which
was a tasty-looking ride) could really cut loose more in the
streets. Case in point, an abandoned subdivision or military
base with suburbia-style living quarters. I’ve seen two such
locations, one of them on Jesse James Is A Dead Man, where they staged a
police pursuit with James in a Camaro and about a half dozen
cops. Speeds there easily were topping 100+ in the streets
with no concern for the local traffic laws nor the natives (although
James did take a detour onto a nearby golf course…). Another
such location was featured on an episode of Mythbusters where Adam
Savage and Jamie Hyneman were testing out spy movie car chase gadgets
such as smoke screens and spikes to puncture tires. That
location in particular had plenty of cover for the Viper to hide and it
could have rocketed down the streets. Foust’s handling of that
SRT was pretty impressive though. I wonder how long until the
“Tanner is Stig” rumors get going.
yeah, again, what sets the original Top Gear apart for me are the
hosts. You put those three guys as the hosts of a cooking show
or a travel show (would love to see a Bourdain crossover, FYI), and
they’d still be killing it with their chemistry. Top Gear has
the excellent supercar features to be sure, but the bits I love just as
much are when it’s the three of them are doing a shtick that doesn’t
involve something that can beat a plane to a destination. If
you’ve seen them do RV Super Cross or driving in heaps across the South
(one of the most harrowing and hilarious things I’ve ever seen) or
journeying through Vietnam on scooters or sailing the English Channel in
homemade carboats, you know that the supercars on this show are almost
secondary. Divorce Top Gear from Clarkson, Hammond and May,
but keep all the other features as we’ve done here, and put the trio in
some other sort of show at the same time on another channel, and I’d be
watching the other show. Faust, Wood and Ferrara don’t have
anywhere near the onscreen appeal the original three do. Of
course that’s unfair to judge after one episode, but their material in
studio was a snooze. Then again, I was hooked on the original
TG with just one episode. So maybe it’s not that unfair.
Renn: It’s pretty clear what the producers were thinking when they assembled
these guys- they strike at several varied and particularly American
stereotypes, while one of them is a pretty boy, and one is a nerd.
Everything about the group screams “USA” but they just don’t have the
sophisticated-but-smartass charm that the UK chaps seems to almost
universally pull off. Here we have more faux-machismo and that lightly
antagonistic “fuck you, dude, no fuck you” competitive dynamic that
drives so many shows like this, yet reads more like dumb immaturity with
this cast of characters. I’d be lying if I said I hated them though, or
that they make the show unwatchable. Whether it’s the writers or they
come up with it themselves, they have the groove of describing the
experience of driving these cars pretty well. That same purplishly
prosaic hyperbole that even the Brits pull out… “It’s like getting
aroused at gunpoint” and that sort of thing.
Like I said earlier, I’ve got hundreds of episodes of the UK to plow
through before the American version really becomes a priority, but I
can’t blame them for not fixing a format that’s obviously not broken.
I’d be interested in the uniquely American spin on things (so far as it
extends beyond just the host casting), but frankly, Americans may have
invented modern automotive manufacture, but nobody makes a handmade
vehicle like the Europeans. I’m worried that an attempt to scare up more
American gear-heads will result in them staging sophisticated
tractor-pulls or some shit. The inevitable NASCAR cameos, etc. I hope
that never gets laid on too thick. Ultimately I don’t mind giving the
show a little time to figure out its own groove, but until it does, I’ve
got DVDs to catch up on.
Nick: I like Adam Ferrara on Rescue Me and what I’ve heard of his standup
is pretty solid stuff. Rutledge is amicable. Foust is dreadfully dry
and boring, and his idea of jokes miss the mark unmercifully. His
thing about sushi chefs clapping their hands to make Japanese people
salivate was a nightmare and what makes Top Gear so great is that
it’s funny in a very smart way. So far, this is far too American in
that it does nothing but right down the middle jokes and very lowest
common denominator statements on driving.
“This is fun!” “This is a
mean machine!” “Car go fast!”.
And they didn’t do the news, which is a huge mistake. The one part
of the UK show that falls on deaf ears stateside are the laws,
rules, and figures in that industry who we know nothing of.
Oftentimes, the host’s humor and sarcasm wins the day but
considering the state of America’s auto industry and how weird we
are regarding safety and oil, there’s plenty of avenues to explore.
If you’re going to have The Stig and a race track with named corners
and all of the staples of the original show either own it or
aggressively forge forward in new direction. There’s no energy here.
Jeremy: I think the best way to sum it up after Episode one, at least as far as
my opinion is concerned, is that watching the show and reading you guys’
thoughts hasn’t so much made me excited to go back for episode 2
(though I will), but instead is making me crave the UK version in a way I
never had before. So, take that for what it’s worth.
I think Nick articulated in the most succinct way possible –
everything about this show that ISN’T watching these amazing cars be
amazing is indeed right down the middle.
Nick: I want the show to be good. More Top Gear is never bad, and they don’t overwrite the flagship from across the pond… but so far this feels like an emo cover of a great song.