Thursday, August 13, 2009

TV Review: Top Gear (2002-___)

I am not a gear head. I have no love for engine specifications, I can’t tell you every model Ford ever made, and I would rather shoot myself than watch Motor Week. But I love Top Gear. Contradiction? No, not really, because Top Gear isn’t a car show. Top Gear is an extremely clever comedy farcically disguised as a car show.

What Is Top Gear?

Top Gear, ostensibly, is a British car show. But as the show’s own website explains, “you’ll find no boring stats or impenetrable conversations about camshafts.” And that is because the show is not about cars. The show is about three sarcastic and very witty hosts, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May (aka Captain Slow), who engage in a series of challenges, review the occasional car (often tongue in cheek), and interview a weekly celebrity. It is the dry wit version of Monty Python.

The Challenges

The main highlight of each show is the challenge. These involve the producers sending the three hosts to some far away location, often another country, and giving them some crazy assignment. Some of the more recent challenges, for example, have involved turning cars into boats and trying to cross the English Channel, driving the length of Vietnam (about 1000 miles) in eight days on ancient motorcycles, trying to cross impassible parts of Africa in cars costing less than a few thousand dollars, and "economy racing" from Basel to Liverpool (750 miles) on one tank of gas.

These challenges are extremely well shot and edited, and compare favorably to Michael Palin’s Around The World series. Indeed, these challenges are so well done that they would be fun to watch even if the hosts simply did them earnestly. But they don’t. Instead, they abuse each other the entire time, from saying rude things to pulling pranks. They criticize the cars, the roads, and the countries. And things go very, very wrong.

Best of all, everything about the show is clever, insightful, and really funny -- though like much “typical British humor,” the show is very subtle and you must pay careful attention. For example, in the Vietnam episode, if you listen closely, you will realize that the soundtrack they use comes from Apocalypse Now and many of the references are to war films or are cracks about communism. They won’t tell you this, and they never explain the humor, but it is there if you pay attention.

Great examples of the show's dry wit can be seen in a recent episode in which two of the hosts try to determine if communism ever made a good car. After showing a variety of horrifically poorly built cars (sadly, not available online right now), they race a car made by British union workers, aka "British communism", against a car made by the Russians to determine who would have won the cold war. The British car is the Morris Marina, which Clarkson derisively calls the "Morris Marxist" (he also notes that the "TC" version of the car stood for "Trotskyite Crap"). Finally, they examine some of the luxury cars made by the Soviets, which results in classic quotes like “there is so much space [in the backseat] that you could chop up thirty dissidents“ and Clarkson saying that he would like to demonstrate the cigarette lighter “but unfortunately, we don’t live in a free country."

Or consider this challenge, which really sums up the essence of the show, in which they have been instructed to buy used mid-engine Italian super cars (costing less than £10,000 each), and race them from Bristol to a strip club in Slough. As the race continues, they engage in a series of challenges, through which they discover how poorly these cars have held up over the years. Finally, one by one, these cars break down spectacularly. (See the video here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

The Reviews

The hosts also will review a car at some point during the show. You’ve never heard of most of these cars. But that’s ok. To review the cars, the hosts typically take them for a drive as they discuss the look and feel of the car and make snarky comments about the manufacturer. See for example the following review of the Nissan Micra for a typical example of how these reviews are done:



When they have had their fun, they turn the car over to their “tame racing driver,” known only as The Stig. The Stig will race the car around their track, after which the car's time is placed on their leader board to determine which car is the fastest.

The identity of the Stig has become one of those mysteries that people try to solve -- like Charlie’s identity on Charlie’s Angels. At one point, the show was forced to reveal that the Stig was in fact formula one racer Michael Schumacher, though there is reason to think this was not true.

During some of the challenges, they have also introduced substitute Stigs, whenever the Stig is unavailable. These have included the ultra fat “Stig’s American cousin,” or the toga-draped “Stig’s African cousin” or the truck driving, one-arm-tanned “Rig Stig.”

In any event, these reviews are always done in a tongue in cheek fashion that keeps them from being boring, even to non-car people. For example, in this episode, after being criticized by a viewer for failing to provide thorough reviews, Clarkson tests/reviews a Ford Fiesta by racing it through a mall as he is chased by a Corvette. Afterwards, the Fiesta incredibly takes part in an amphibious landing on a beach with the British Royal Marines (also not currently available online).

By the way, if you want to see the ultimate in luxury cars, check out this Maybach. And if you want to see the future of cars, check out this Honda Clarity.

The Celebrity In The Reasonably Priced Car

Top Gear also usually includes a celebrity interview. Here’s why. Years ago, a group of politically correct Brits complained that the show focused too much on expensive cars and not enough on reasonably priced cars. The always PC BBC demanded that Top Gear spend more time examining reasonably priced vehicles. The very un-PC Top Gear responded by obtaining a reasonably priced car, and asking celebrity guests to take it for timed laps around their track.

The selection of celebrities is really quite impressive, and includes several Americans, e.g. Christian Slater and Mark Wahlberg. Moreover, Clarkson often manages to ask better questions of these guests than most professional interviewers, like when he trips up the Mayor of London on the (lack of) environmental benefits of electric cars.

Criticisms And Allegations Of Not Being Politically Correct

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Top Gear has been criticized for making some very not-politically correct statements. Gay groups, environmental groups, class warfare types, and other liberal hysterical types have complained bitterly about the show and comments made by the hosts. Others have been upset about statements made about foreign countries. Indeed, the Germans were upset when Clarkson described a car as being “typically German” because “it has a GPS that only points toward Poland and a fan belt that will last 1000 years.” Others were upset about the claim that “the communists were to making cars, what the Germans are to making love.”

They do make the occasional anti-American statement, so be aware of that. But these comments are usually limited to complaints about Americans being fat or the inability of American car companies to make good cars. The Vietnam episode had a couple of comments that were slightly uncomfortable, but were nothing compared to what has come out of the mouth of our own President. And I have yet to hear a political criticism of the USA, except when Clarkson told a visiting American, "welcome to the free world, I think you'll like it here" (though they do hilariously mock the State Department over a visa issue).

In any event, what people seem to miss in making these criticisms, is that everyone gets insulted: the French, the Italians, the Russians, the Americans. . . everyone, and especially their fellow British. None of it is done with animosity.

Conclusion

Top Gear is not what you think it would be from the title or the description of the show found in your tv guide. Give it a chance, you’ll like it. It can currently be seen on BBC America on Monday nights and Saturday afternoons. A new season begins on August 17th (8:00 pm EST).


30 comments:

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I'm a big car fan, but since they eliminated the old-fashioned carburetor and added standardized electronic ignition, I don't have a clue what's going on under a hood. Yet I also find Top Gear eminently watchable and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.

DCAlleyKat said...

Andrew, though not an auto fan I am going to check this out and see if it ignites me funny bone.

AndrewPrice said...

DCAlleyKat, I honestly am not a car fan, and I really enjoy the show. Like I say above, it reminds me of part Monty Python, part Michael Palin's Around the World series, and part buddy comedy.

Let me know what you think.


Lawhawk, I used to work my cars as well (though not by choice) until they became so complicated that you had to be a scientist to figure them out.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: They'd probably enjoy my last adventure in automobile repair. It wasn't really a repair. I didn't see the point in owning a Porsche that wouldn't go faster than 90mph. But those were the rules when I got mine in '84. They had put a governor on the engines, with a big warning in the manual: "Do not disable the governor." Of course they forgot to revise the entire manual for American consumption, so farther back in the manual were the instructions: "How to disable the governor." That I was able to do.

Tennessee Jed said...

This sounds like it is to race cars as Sports Night was to Sorts Center. Given that Monty Python is by definition dry British wit, this must veritable dust storm material. Anyhing that is non p.c. and gets protested by the liberal groups you mentioned is o.k. with me.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, It's a little less crazy that Monty Python. Check out some of the clips that I've linked and you'll get a feel for it.

The analogy to early sports center is really quite accurate.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I once ended up with a Nissan that wouldn't let me go beyond 98 mph (no warning either about a governor). The engine had more to give, but it just wouldn't give it. Not that I go beyond 98 often, but this really ticked me off, so I got rid of the car.

CrispyRice said...

OMG, is it wrong that I *TOTALLY* want that little hot pink car?

Yes... I'm a sucker for cute...

AndrewPrice said...

CrispyRice, LOL! Clearly Nissan has found their target market!

CrispyRice said...

I'm sure it'll do well in the market of adults who use Elmo as an avatar. We're a much sought-after group you know...

AndrewPrice said...

I hear that's a prime target for advertisers. :-)

Suzie1 said...

I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Top Gear. Some of the best moments on tv I've seen in a long time. Humor, suspense, British accents - like a Cary Grant movie (without the romance).

DCAlleyKat said...

Monty Python, Palin's Around the World, and a bit of buddy comedy...that's almost enough to hook me already! Am going to go set the DVR for Aug 17, 8:00, BBC...

ScottDS said...

I'm no gear head (unfortunately) but it sounds like an interesting show!

And the only reason I'm even aware of Jeremy Clarkson is because he was a frequent guest host on the BBC's news/comedy panel show Have I Got News For You with Ian Hislop and Whose Line? vet Paul Merton.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2Q4iUcnAZ4

I've become a fan from watching various clips on YouTube. (They try to keep things even but you can probably guess the political leanings of the show.)

AndrewPrice said...

Suzie, It really is a quality show, and there are some great moments that I remember for days after seeing the episodes. In the Russian episode above, I still chuckle every time I think about Clarkson saying, "Oh dear, I seem to have accidentally killed James May."


DCAlleyKat, I hope you like it! :-) Let me know after you get a chance to see an episode.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, thanks for the clip -- very funny! I hadn't heard of Clarkson before I stumbled upon Top Gear.

As I said, I'm not into cars either, but this show has really won me over because it's not about the cars, it's about the three hosts. And they deliver time and time again. Give it a shot and let me know what you think.

By the way, in terms of politics, Top Gear is virtually politics free. To the extent there is politics, is usually outside critics objecting to the snarky comments or to them not reviewing cheap cars -- classism.

There is a woman who writes for the Guardian (leftwing British newspaper) who seems to hate the show with an incredible passion, but she's a nut and her attacks are the height of insane victimology.

But unless you're on that fringe, you won't even notice anything political about the show. And, as I note, they are equal opportunity offenders.

Suzie1 said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top_Gear_(U.S._TV_series)

I've been hearing about this for a while. I hope it doesn't make it to air, Without the British stars, I don't think it will work.

AndrewPrice said...

Suzie,

I've been hearing about that too, and I agree completely. It would be the wildest stroke of luck if this thing worked over here.

Not only will it be virtually impossible to replace the relationship that the three hosts have built, but it's going to lose something when they start testing Toyota Corollas and Detroit POS's.

Also, these things never translate well because they always try to "Americanize" them (like they did with Iron Chef), which usually means sucking out the essence of the show and replacing it with some loud-mouthed B-list celebrity. Yuck.

Primer said...

Very cool Andrew. TG is a travel show masquerading as a talk show all the while acting like a car show. That's not even the best part. Clarkson, May and Hammond (aka Hamster) honestly appear to be having fun. This makes it fun for us. What a gig . Drive fast cars, travel to exotic locales and be a smart*ss. I could do that! I'd do that for free...

AndrewPrice said...

Primer, Well summed up. LOL! I would love to do what these guys do!

Primer said...

Andrew I've already seen season 13, and I won't spoil it for anyone, but I will tell you it is brilliant. They are definitely back for season 14 so that is great, but (and this isn't a spoiler and not bad news) the last episode in the season has a somewhat sad ending related to the car industry and the global warming zealots. Being a definite "Car Guy" it was kind of depressing for me. If you feel the need to see the episodes early I can point you in the direction where you can get them. It's safe and "legal" and the shows are the original UK production (full length)......

Primer said...

Suzie and Andrew.
Last I heard (this was last week) the American version of Top Gear was a dead duck! Thank God. What where they thinking? Adam Corolla in the role of Clarkson? Good God!
Your right that it won't translate well. It wouldn't be the same without the Pythonesque wit and humor, but most of all it would stink just because there would be no Stig......

AndrewPrice said...

Primer, I would actually be interested in the link! :-)

I'm glad to hear they are still making them because I know that some people keep aggitating for the BBC to stop the show. (Speaking of the BBC, did you see the episode where Clarkson drove the world's smallest car right through a news room and ended up being seen in the background? Hilarious!

I am glad to hear that they aren't doing the American version (I understand they have started an Australia version and are considering a Russian version, though my info could be dated). I just don't see how it could work.

Indeed, replacing Clarkson with a guy like Adam Carolla is exactly the kind of thing they normally try when they import these shows, and it's exactly the kind of thing that would keep me from ever even turning the show on.

Primer said...

Andrew, I did see the smallest car episode and again I say "I want there job"!
The site to download the shows is http://www.finalgear.com/. They also have fifth gear episodes and top gear aus. Neither are as good as TG BBC.
Don't know if your familar with downloading large files, but you need to use a download manager like "Bittorent" (available here http://www.bittorrent.com/)
All this stuff is safe and secure. I actually have all 13 seasons and have never had any problems with spyware or stuff like that.
I know your very computer savy so you shouldn't have any problems at all. Hope you like it.
Note: the episodes are very high quality and look very good on my 26 inch desktop monitor, but I've never tried them on a bigscreen tv.

Primer said...

Andrew
Can't figure out why the links won't post.
Cut and paste I guess.... :-)


http://www.finalgear.com/

http://www.bittorrent.com/

AndrewPrice said...

Primer, thanks for the links. I am familiar with bit torrent, though I would neeeeever use them to download illegal material. That would be wrong. ;-)

To get links to post, you need to use html code. It looks like this:

(a href="link address")some name for the link(/a)

Only you need to substitute < and > for each ( and ). I had to write it this way to make it visible, otherwise it tries to turn it into a link. I hope this makes sense.

Primer said...

Andrew, thanks for the info. You are far more computer savy than me..
Your the legal expert so you'll know better than me, but I've never seen any legal notices at all about these episodes? Does British copyright law apply in the US?
Please correct me if I am wrong. Wouldn't want the goverment to add me to another list..

AndrewPrice said...

Primer, My tech savvy has very severe limits! :-)

Yes, the United States recognizes British copyrights. In fact, I believe (though I haven't looked it up) that every country in the world recognizes the copyrights of all other countries. Patents are a little different, as are trademarks.

One of the interesting issues I ran into with Top Gear was that they have more available on line than I was able to access because the BBC blocked me from accessing those videos because they weren't available in the USA. I would assume this was a BBC decision regarding licensing and whatnot, rather than something imposed by either country (though most countries do censor the internet) but it was interesting to see that UK web surfers could see those videos freely and I could not.

Primer said...

Had no idea copyright law worked like that. Now I feel bad. Not bad enough to stop watching the show mind you, but a little twinge of guilt :)
I ran into the same thing when I first went to the Top Gear BBC site. It was only available to UK residents. Seems kind of strange to me, but we are talking about Brit's here so......
One more thing....I don't even know if the first episode of season 13 has aired on BBC America yet, but if you haven't seen the first episode your in for a good one. I can guarantee you will like it...another "epic" show

AndrewPrice said...

Primer, the new season begins Monday night, though I'm not sure what the topic is yet. I'm looking forward to it.

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