Patrick Dempsey: Racing Le Mans

Patrick Dempsey: Racing Le Mans

Not that I exactly want to get a soccer debate going, but somebody at work the other day was watching the Man U - Chelsea game on NBC Sports. “The best thing they did was keeping these English guys on the play-by-play,” he said.

NBC hasn’t tried to flash it all up, either. It’s like a radio play-by-play superimposed on high-definition—and the whole enterprise is refreshing for it.

Patrick Dempsey: Racing Le Mans, which follows the Grey’s Anatomy actor as he attempts to win or place at the iconic race, has that great kind of restraint. It’s not especially gussied up. There aren’t any gimmicks or “wacky” shenanigans. The show is pretty much just interviews and racing, well-shot, well-edited, well-narrated, decently technical in its description of what’s happening on the track, and featuring an array of people who seem to know what the hell they’re talking about. It’s professional.

And Racing Le Mans has some engaging stuff to show off within that framework. The explanations of the class change and what a prototype car does differently, or what a bankruptcy does to a team, or the team’s failed driver change are cool to watch, and in the case of the latter two, actually matter.

If the first hour is any indication, though, the miniseries as a whole will live and die on Dempsey’s ability to carry what is at times a very introspective, isolated narrative. “I find Grey’s Anatomy to be his hobby, and racing to be his passion,” it’s said of Dempsey, and that certainly seems to be the case. He has an intensity about and passion for racing that comes through very clear.

My own interest in how Dempsey is taking to racing flagged a little as the hour wore on, though. Dempsey finds racing fascinating—shouldn’t this hour of television? When, for instance, Dempsey talks about preparing himself for the driver change as his partner is racing, I mean, shouldn’t we be in the car then? Do we need to see Dempsey shilling for a sponsor at length to demonstrate how much he cares about this?

But the hour’s real double-edged sword is the insistence on equating Dempsey with Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and James Garner.

Dempsey is a respectable actor with an affable, intellectual streak. He seems like a good guy. I think he got a pretty raw deal from Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama. However fondly he may be remembered, though, he is not Steve McQueen or Paul Newman. McQueen and Newman are American icons! Sheryl Crow has an entire terrible song about this.

So that’s the cloying part of that. The tremendous upside of it, though, is the Racing Le Mans’ great segments on McQueen and Newman’s racing careers, narrated by their old interviews, with these beautiful shots of them racing. And, despite the somewhat dubious comparison, the Newman and McQueen examples reinforce the appeal of this whole thing: The idea that racing is unforgiving, a kind of blind justice that Hollywood (or, frankly, most things) can never quite offer.

Stray observations:

  • Some alternate titles: Grey’s Anatomy: Tokyo Drift, Le Mans-y Can't Buy Me Love (cannot claim credit for that one), Le Mans of Honor
  • One interesting aspect of the documentary here: Nearly every, if not straight up every, interview is positive about Dempsey, and he generally comes off well, but the portrayal of his appearance at a sponsor event is not especially flattering. He comes off somewhat disinterested and flat.
  • Dempsey drops one of my least favorite actor language quirks at the beginning of the hour: “present,” as in “be present.” The concept is great. We should all be engaged in and aware of the things before us. But they all phrase it this way! “I’ve learned the importance of being present.” 
  • He sure is a handsome man, though.
  • What I’d really like now is an ESPN or HBO Sports documentary on McQueen and Newman’s racing careers.