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I’ve watched Top Gear for years, so with a bit of trepidation I turned on History Channel to watch the first show of Top Gear USA. The idea was to bring the hit British show to the US market. They’d use our roads, our presenters, and some of our cars.
Overall impression: They copied the format, but they didn’t get the joke. It’s like they took the UK version of the show and sucked out all spontaneity, humor, and class then moved it to the ugliest settings imaginable. If Top Gear is steak, potatoes, and a Guinness in a good pub with friends by a fireplace; Top Gear USA is a ham sandwich with mayo on white bread with a Coors Light in an empty Nebraska truck stop. Now I see what my friends in the UK think about the USA.
Where did it go so wrong? The hosts. They’ve got three young guys that couldn’t be more boring. One is like John Boy Walton come back to bore us from history, one is like a young Tony Danza with even less acting talent, and the last one looks like some redneck they pulled off a farm tractor in Arkansas and put through a Hollywood casting generic makeover. They interact with over rehearsed repartee that was written for different people, and are so busy trying to pull off being cool that they crunch any excitement under the feet.
Where else? The test track. Like the real Top Gear, they’ve got a part of an airfield laid out for the track. This one is clearly something the producers got cheap access to out in what looks like the Mojave Desert. You’d think that the big open spaces out there and bright sunlight would make for some great video, but it doesn’t. The light from that desert sun is way too harsh, the haze of heat coming off the payment makes for a good photo once in a while but is painfully districting for videos. The track itself is hideous. You can barely see the car as it goes around track because of the dead brush everywhere on the side. The course itself is laid out with temporary barriers, cones, and colored guide strips on an ancient and cracked blacktop and it has technical sounding corner names and features that are meaningless and boring to most of the audience.
Missed Opportunity? Holy FSM, they made The Stig seem boring. Apparently The Stig is the same guy and makes his appearance in the same way – but instead of having fun with it, they downplayed it to almost nothing with a quiet introduction and none of the hype and pomp of the Jeremy Clarkson intros at all. There was not even a standard “some say….” Introduction. For FSCK’s sake, they didn’t even MENTION that this was The Stig from the UK show – or frankly mention the UK show at all. Instead, he was introduced as a former race car driver who would be there to do nothing other than push cars to their fastest times around the track. Yawn.
What should have been done? First of all, they picked the wrong people to present. Instead of three young car guys without personalities or acting skills, they should have gone with an aging Hollywood tough guy like Robert Conrad or a high energy funny guy like Will Smith to lead the show, with co-presenters like Mikey from American Chopper on the one hand and maybe a really hot Hollywood female stunt driver on the other. That’s the kind of combination to put some fun in the show. The track should be made much more attractive, and they should acknowledge the UK show.
The last big mistake here, and an almost unforgivably stupid one, was pretending that this was a new show and not even mentioning Top Gear from the UK. Let’s face it, 90% of this audience is probably made up of people who have at least seen the real deal if not fully fans of it. When any other show does a spin off, the proven formula is to do a two-part show with the mixed cast to introduce them. That would really have helped this along. At the very least, they could have used The Stig to great effect, having him walk through shaking his head in confusion over the differences , having him get in on the wrong side to drive the first time, or some other little homage to the parent show. They really should have played up his introduction – shown him driving a race car, then a race boat, then another race car across the world to get there. Talk about stepping on the joke!
I really hope changes get made and the show goes in a better direction. It would be a real heartbreak to take any version of Top Gear off the high priority DVR list.
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