'Top Gear' Premiere Recap (VIDEO)
by Danny Gallagher, posted Nov 22nd 2010 10:25AM
It's been said before (including by me) but it can't be said enough: America deserves its own version of 'Top Gear,' the BBC car show that dispenses global glee over supercars, sports monsters and other dream gear-grinders.
We may not have created the concept of the car (depending on who you ask) and what you are willing to define as a car. We did, however, create one unmistakable and essential part of the car: its coolness.
We put the sense of style into a streamlined '57 Chevy by sticking those killer tail fins on the back and turning an ugly hunk of V-10 oil and metal into a smooth, sultry piece of pornographic machinery. We gave the world the one thing that made Steve McQueen just slightly cooler than Steve McQueen: a green 1968 Mustang GT 390 Fastback. Hell, without us, cars wouldn't have unnecessary rear-spoilers, custom flame paint-jobs or (God forbid) cup-holders.
So it's good to finally see the good ol' red, white and blue step up to the plate with a 'Top Gear' of their own, which premiered last night on The History Channel. The problem was it had to have a smidgen of the greatness of the original or risk becoming another enemy combatant in a Guantanamo-sized sleeper cell of failed British TV remakes ('Payne,' 'Red Dwarf,' the unwatchable 'McSpaced'). And since the original is just about as close as an information and entertainment show can get to perfection, my hopes weren't high -- but they weren't completely destroyed.
The opening got off to a rocky start as it explained itself to an audience who have never heard or seen the original. It felt unnecessary to a regular 'Top Gear'-head like myself, but the need to spell out every aspect of the show almost completely killed its spontaneity. Of course, this won't be repeated if the show builds a bigger audience.
The true charm of the original is the enthusiasm and snarky camaraderie of Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, the original show's gearhead hosts, which bleeds into the pre-planned parts. Their unique love of all sorts of cars and car-dom brings focus to each episode, so that the show isn't really about cars, but the stories, adventures and fun that cars create.
The show attempted to capture that spirit in the first segment by pitting a very hot-looking Dodge Viper against a Cobra AH-1 attack helicopter, armed with simulated missiles trying to blast co-hosts Tanner Foust (the racing and drifting expert) and Rutledge Wood (the good ol' boy gearhead) through the streets of a small Southern town. None of the lines uttered by the hosts had any punch because they felt really rehearsed, particularly their "Pamela Anderson" analogy to the sleek, plastic fakeness of the sultry Viper. Some of Wood's voiceover lines were so cringe-worthy, they felt like they belonged in the first draft script to 'Point Break.'
This left most of the humor on the shoulders of their other host, comedian and 'Rescue Me' actor Adam Ferrara, who took on the Yankee role without laying it on too thick. He's also a car lover and very funny, but his sit-down with astronaut Buzz Aldrin for the show's "Big Star, Small Car" segment (their version of "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car") gave him zero chance to prove that to people who didn't know him. The interview was simply Ferrara reading a list of the cars Aldrin had owned with a quick segue into showing Aldrin's lap, which wasn't exciting to begin with since he's the first person on the leaderboard. Thankfully, the show has room to move so Adam can only gear-up from here.
I would have written the show off by this point, but the episode became almost self-aware at this point, as though the producers and editors realized the mistakes they made in the first half and tried to quickly correct in the show's final turn through "Chicago" and "Gambon." It actually got much, much better.
The three hosts got to drive three high-priced Lamborghinis (a Balboni, a Murceilago SV and a Superleggera) and review them in their own special way, and Ferrara's review actually drew a laugh out of me when he noticed that the cup-holders in the Superleggera cost $650 each as an added feature.
Foust had a great boyish spirit as he has a full-on geek-out over the Balboni's metal-on-metal gear shift. Even Wood, who could be a great foil for some of the show's nuttier challenges, had a great line about the fear his Murceilago exudes by "simply being parked." It all felt less scripted and more spontaneous as the segment developed. Even the opening montage of a matador maneuvering his way around a smoking hot Lambo as it kicked orange dirt around a high-speed frame had beauty to it, like the original British show's reviews, which are much flashier and jumpier.
They were free of the reality show producer's leash to make their own observations about the cars they were driving and their fellow dragline times. The show found its footing and realized that the spirit of competition and need for unnecessary bragging rights are what make the show work so well in any country or language.
Even the in-studio banter got better as Ferrara and Wood ganged up on Foust for having the slowest time, the way every guy and his friends would if they had three free Lamborghinis to play with that weren't on their insurance.
The show still has a lot of road to fill in its 10-episode run, but the last segment alone proves it has some potential to be, as Clarkson, Hammond and May have said countless time, "brilliant."
'Top Gear' airs Sun., 10PM ET on The History Channel