By debuting Richard Hammond’s Crash Course after the new season premiere of Top Gear, BBC America is basically treating the show as a Top Gear bonus feature. This makes sense. Shows starring Top Gear presenters when they aren’t presenting Top Gear are kind of like those solo albums that every member of Kiss released simultaneously in 1978. Whether a pure star vehicle like Hammond’s or a team-up effort like James May’s road-trip shows with the sniffy and untelegenic wine expert Oz Clarke, these series serve to prove that the chemistry between the three hosts is as perfect as it is indefinable and, apparently, impossible to replicate. These series are no substitute for the real thing, but hardcore fans will still want to own the complete set.
The premise of Crash Course is simplicity itself. James May uses his time away from the track to do shows about toys and wine, but as the renaissance man of the group, he believes in expanding his interests and those of his viewers. Hammond is more of the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” school. He’s made a television career for himself by driving loud, heavy vehicles, ideally in life-threatening situations, and he’s not about to start confusing people by anchoring a series on the history of the metric system or Kabuki theater, just to create the impression that he’s “well-rounded.” The only concession to change that Hammond has ever honored in his TV career was when, around the time he turned 40, he stopped taking a copy of the Hanson brothers’ first CD with him to show the barber whenever he got his hair cut.
As Hammond explains in his weekly introduction, those previous experiences were about driving “for fun.” But the realest, loudest, manliest vehicles are those designed to perform some honest workingman’s task, tasks that can get you blown up real good or pounded into the ground like a tent pole, or at least mentioned in a major piece of civil litigation, if you do them wrong. Each week, Hammond, who has come to America to be among the straight-shooting democratic proles his Top Gear co-star Jeremy Clarkson routinely characterizes as redneck dumbasses who are so fat that each has been assigned his own ZIP code, selects one of “the world’s biggest, baddest vehicles” and spends three days trying to learn to perform an operation that usually requires “years of training” to master.
It’s a premise that could easily serve as the basis of a Top Gear segment, and if a steady viewer were to wrack his brain, he could probably cite any number of occasions when it has served as the basis of a Top Gear segment. When treated as Top Gear segments, such ideas generally manage to fill up 10 minutes of television, not counting wrap-arounds, and taking six of them and bloating them out to a full hour is wasteful and uneconomical. This will only enhance their charm for the true fan of Top Gear, a show that has never imagined a cheap thrill, or a cheap gag, that it didn’t think would justify using enough fossil fuel to light up Vegas through the end of the year,
Hammond’s first stop is Fort Bliss in El Paso, where he learns to operate an M1A2 Abrams tank. “These are the tanks,” he says, in a reading-off-the-teleprompter tone of voice, “that spearheaded the capture of Baghdad.” He wakes up when a sergeant walks him through the various parts of the vehicle and Hammond, after waiting as patiently as he can, points to the enormous gun sticking out of the thing and refers to it as “the elephant in the room.” This happy commingling of phallic references seems to relax the sergeant. “After 15 years, I still get excited to be around one,” he says, adding, “What’s a Lamborghini got on a tank?” This is enough to get the always-polite Hammond to throw his host and instructor a dubious look.
The centerpiece of the episode is a sequence that basically demands that Hammond prove his worthiness to steer a tank by making a gesture in the direction of the sergeant’s way of thinking. Out on maneuvers, he’s required to use the tank to lay waste to a string of vehicles, including a 1979 Porsche 928 and a 1970 Chevy Chevelle, that are doppelgangers for cars in his own collection. When Hammond is trying to express the exhilaration he feels while piloting the tank, he’s not at his most dazzlingly articulate—there are a lot of exclamations along the lines of “What a feeling!” and “Unlike anything else,” punctuated with his notorious “Ha-HANH!” laugh—but when beautiful machines die at his hands, it brings out the poet in him.
He describes the Porsche as “a piece of German exotica,” lovely and blameless, before making good on his promise to follow orders and pulverizing it into a steel-and-glass pizza. “What’s it doing to my soul!?” he howls. “We’re showing how to graciously let them go,” the sergeant tells him. Throughout the training period, the army guys all treat Hammond with good-humored firmness, as if they could imagine worse duties than baby-sitting this goofball but don’t want him to break their tank. It isn’t until it’s time for him to leave and the sergeant presents him with a parting gift and addresses him by his Top Gear nickname, “Hamster,” that you realize that, deep inside their manly facades, they’ve been jumping up and down and screaming, and begging him to sign the copy of Car And Driver with his picture on the cover that they keep in a protective Mylar bag.
Operating the tank requires Hammond to function as part of a crew, which involves the added stress that comes from the fear of being the one man who screws up and lets down his side. In the second episode, he visits a logging company in Oregon, where he has to master three different, enormous vehicles: one that cuts down trees, one that processes them, and one that loads the logs onto a truck. (Trying to be worthy of the natural setting, he calls the loggers “stewards of the earth.” Jeremy Clarkson would have called them environmental rapists to their faces, made a joke about slipping Mother Nature a roofie, and then tried to high-five them.)
Hammond’s success with the logging equipment is much more mixed than it is with the tank, and the handling he gets from the logging guys is somewhat flintier than the treatment he gets from the soldiers, and with good reason: The soldiers were taking time off from defending their homeland, but these guys are concerned about how much money this Limey git may be costing them. (“Does everything you do take 10 times longer than everybody else?” asks the boss, as Hammond is using a pair of giant mechanical claws to gingerly sort huge logs, as if he were trying to discreetly figure out which ones have nuts in them and which ones have coconut. “I’m new,” Hammond replies, pathetically.) Crash Course doesn’t intend to carry any major statements about America based on the observations of a visiting tourist, but it does tell you something about our national priorities.