Top Gear U.S.

The makers of Top Gear U.S. chose to wrap up their premiere season with a clip show, with the hosts, actor-comedian Adam Ferrara, pro racer and stunt driver Tanner Foust, and TV racing analyst and hirsute man-mountain Rutlege Wood, revisiting the thrilling highlights of their previous nine whole episodes. It was a curious decision, if only because it's weird and a little off-putting to see people extolling their record of heroic exploits when the exploits only started two months ago. When Ferrara, after the first blast-from-the-past montage, said, "I'd forgotten how much fun we had," he sounded a little like the hero of Lights Out, who used to get hit in the head for a living and now devotes a certain amount of time every week to wondering where he parked the car. 

By contrast, the original British version has been on the air since 1977, though its current period of awesomeness began with a format reshuffle and a return from the dead in 2002. Ferrara may have been expressing he and his friends' thrill at having managed to get on the air at all; American networks have been trying to tap into the Top Gear phenomenon since 2005, when the Discovery Channel made the first unsuccessful pilot for a U.S. edition. (More recently, an NBC version, whose hosts included Foust and Adam Carolla, was yanked from the network's schedule after the failure of the reboot of Knight Rider, a show that insulted even Carolla's intelligence.) Discovery eventually aired a chopped-up version of the original that was designed to boil it down to the elements that were thought to have appeal to American viewers, but the version of Top Gear that wound up taking off here was, lo and behold, the full, real thing, when it showed up on BBC America. 

No less an authority on what does and doesn't fly on mainstream TV than Jay Leno has said that he has doubts that the British show's success is duplicable on a commercial U.S. network, because the bracingly rude tone of some of the car reviews would put off potential sponsors. Given Iron Jay's sage insight, it's worth pointing out that while the clip show made a mess of the highlights from the first season's races and road trips by cutting them short and scrambling them together, it did set aside time for three full, creamy reviews of the hosts' favorite new driving machines. It was here that the differences between the U.S. and the U.K. hosts were hardest to miss. It's not, as you might think, that the U.K. guys are so much more polished and articulate but that the Americans lack their full, demented level of enthusiasm. Watching Jeremy Clarkson bellow, "What a machine!" as he tears around a track is to wish you could upgrade your pay scale, just so you could buy the car he's driving and find out what he's bellowing about. Watching Ferrara mumble something about how he's as excited as if he were having sex at gunpoint and then do a distracted-sounding riff on how the experience is as thrillingly "inappropriate" as a dirty Italian uncle kissing the bride at a wedding, you find yourself thinking about how hard it must be to think of anything to say when you're driving a car at top speed with a camera a few inches from your puss.

Of the three hosts, Ferrara is the one most likely to get on your nerves over the course of an hour. He's a type that's become a little too familiar on American TV, the aging B-list alpha male who leans over to kiss a car he likes while saying, "That's my baby," and who greets his target audience at the start of the show with the promise that "nobody's gonna get a makeover." He can be funny, though. So can the quieter, broody Foust and the affable, young-papa-bear Wood. The worst thing I can say about them is that they're exactly what a computer would generate if you programmed it to create the hosts of a show like this: three guy's-guy types who fit together pleasantly but a little awkwardly and who aren't so macho and aggressive that they're going to offend anybody. When, during a three-vehicle expedition, one of them cracks jokes about leaving one of the others behind to die of exposure, you can hear someone straining a little hard to make it clear that it's all in good fun. The graphics, music, and editing all scream "Top Gear!", but much of the feel of the show has been imported from a 1980s beer commercial.

The BBC hosts, the good-natured, authoritatively loutish Clarkson; the fortyish Tiger Beat pin-up Richard Hammond; and James May, a man who suggests a member of a veteran prog-rock band who teaches physics class on the side, for kicks, are fun to watch partly for the ways in which their personalities don't  mesh. No computer could conceive of any of them, let alone think of putting them in charge of a car show, which is why, for all its fixation on speed and recklessness and the coolness factor, the U.K. Top Gear often feels more like a Marx Brothers movie than like lad-mag TV. You could almost believe that these three jokers barged into the wrong studio by mistake but are determined to have a good time there before security arrives. They've been at it a long time by now, and the wackiness has grown a little more contrived in recent seasons, but as if to compensate, the challenges and stunts have grown ever more daring and crazy. In a recent 60 Minutes segment, Clarkson confided that he and his mates just take it for granted that one of them will eventually be killed while filming something for the show, but they've talked about it and agreed not to make a big deal about it on the air.

So in recent years, we've seen May tool up the side of an erupting volcano and Clarkson and May drive to the North Pole in a Toyota Hilux (in competition against Hammond, who was using a dog-sled team). These feats are invariably accompanied by a voice-over assuring us that "No one has ever tooled up the side of an erupting volcano before" or "No one has ever driven to the North Pole before," which is the point when my girlfriend usually says, a little loudly, "God, why would anyone want to?" and heads for the bedroom with her copy of David Sedaris. After you've seen that, it's a little hard to get as exercised as Top Gear U.S. wants you to get from seeing our native heroes get stuck in the mud in an essentially tame-looking patch of Alaskan wilderness. It's the tameness that keeps Top Gear U.S. stuck, so far, in the "good try" category. It must be frustrating for the people who work on a show like this to know that people are comparing them to the original, but the U.S. version has yet to establish enough of an identity of its own to make the comparison irrelevant.