Did Anyone Else Think the Premiere of Top Gear America Was an Absolute Disaster?
Automotive television is, at best, a mixed bag. At worst, it’s a cultural wasteland of gimmicky programing that persists only because of our deep love for cars, bolstered by a handful of engaging personalities. Suggesting that I am generally dubious of any new car-related entry into the entertainment landscape would be a gross understatement. So, when the rebooted Top Gear America aired over the weekend, my expectations were already incredibly low.
I suppose the nicest way to phrase this is by saying it did not exceed those expectations.
While it attempts to capture the magic of vintage Top Gear in much the same way the current British version strives to, the first episode fell far short of the mark. Whether that’s down to the hosts not having adequate time to develop legitimate chemistry or a systematic flaw in the show’s design remains to be seen. But something is definitely wrong here.
Episode One felt extremely awkward, although not entirely hopeless. And I’ve reminded myself that I didn’t much care for Richard Hammond the first time I saw him on the screen, either. Fast forward 15 years and I enter into a panic every time he’s in a scrape, terrified that God might take that adorable little man away from me.
Still, Top Gear America has a long way to go before it approaches Hammond levels of charm. Adam Ferrara, Tanner Foust, and Rutledge Wood ended their six-season stint, opening the door for actor William Fichtner, NHRA Top Fuel Champion Antron Brown, and British motoring journalist Tom “Wookie” Ford. It sounds like a decent lineup on paper, but it hasn’t quite worked out in practice.
The taped segments benefit immensely from Fichtner’s acting prowess, but Brown is genuinely difficult to watch. While every incarnation of Top Gear comes loaded with obviously staged interactions, the drag racer’s feigned flabbergast is about as believable as a low-milage Crown Victoria. As he’s not an actor, his on-screen transgressions can be forgiven, though it seems unfair to have placed him into this situation to begin with. Ford isn’t much of an actor either, but his narration and presence — when not in the company of his co-hosts — easily make up for his dramatic shortcomings.
Ideally, the show would consist of Fichtner asking Ford about cars for the full hour. However, that’s not what Top Gear is about. It’s contractually obligated to have celebrity guests, on-road shenanigans, and the silent Stig.
There’s not much to say about the mysterious driver in white, save for an incident where he nearly ran over a spray-tanned grandmother as he conveyed MLB pitcher C.J. Wilson to his mark. Other than that, it was boilerplate Stig: no nonsense hot laps on the track before heading back to the studio.
Speaking of the studio segments, they’re abysmal and suffer from the same problem as the pre-recorded bits. Brown, again, feels ill-suited for the task he’s been given — awkwardly addressing his co-hosts and the home audience as if he’s forgotten they are living, breathing, entities. It’s almost as if someone placed a gun to his head and forced him to perform under threat of violence. I kept waiting for him to clumsily miss a high-five and begin sobbing, screaming into the camera for someone to, “Just do it already.”
The British version runs comparatively smoother. While not yet as endearing as Clarkson, Hammond, and May, the current trio is head and shoulders more enjoyable to watch than the American cast. Rory Reid and Chris Harris aren’t actors but both hold their own in solo segments, while Matt LeBlanc is extremely charming throughout. Watching him take light-hearted abuse from Reid and Harris for being American is actually enjoyable. They seem to be having bona fide fun and, as a result, so does the viewer.
Meanwhile, watching Fichtner and Brown dig on Wookie for being British is almost painful — possibly because the U.S. version already comes across as so Americentric. The trio attempts to drive into the U.S. across the Mexican border, praises the glory of the pickup truck, and makes numerous references to apple pie. It’s borderline jingoistic without the consistent earnestness that would make that entertaining. There’s little to suggest all the patriotism serves any purpose other than to remind the audience that this is the American-branded version of a popular British television show.
It all just feels so plastic. The track choice of SpeedVegas, a course that caters exclusively to visiting gamblers who want to thrash exotic roadsters for $100 a lap, seems wrong. Reviewing the Ford F-150 Raptor and Acura NSX over a year after everyone else had taken a stab at them was a mistake. The show doesn’t need to be organized identically to the British model to be a hit. In fact, making it so easy to compare the two is likely the largest problem it has to face while undergoing these horrendous growing pains.
Gripes aside, I’d sincerely like to see this show work and witness its cast become progressively more comfortable with one another. There’s an opportunity here to do more than toss a fresh coat of red-white-and-blue onto a preexisting format. Bill Fichtner has a cool persona, he calls other grown men “baby,” for Christ’s sake. He should be on television as much as humanly possible. Likewise, Tom Ford is a serviceable presenter but neither he, nor Antron Brown, work in this particular group setting — which the show’s creators have mistakenly thrust forward as the focal point of the entire program.
Hopefully, Episode One is just suffering from a serious case of the pilot jitters and isn’t indicative of subsequent outings. Because we need more broadly appealing automotive programming that focuses less on in-shop arguments and ridiculous customization, which Top Gear America could absolutely provide if it were able to get out its own way.
I know making good TV isn’t easy, and you can see the show it’s supposed to be beneath the veneer, but something has got to give. The formula needs a revision if this program is to persist. And someone should remind BBC America that we already have a Top Gear worth watching in the U.S. — it’s called The Grand Tour.
[Images: BBC America]
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I've been trying to get my son to watch it with me all week and he wisely declined. There's nothing even remotely compelling here. It felt like the producers were just going through the motions trying to follow the TG recipe. Tom Ford was the least awful of the three hosts but far from good; he came the closest to having a personality. Antron Brown should probably stick to going really, really fast in a straight line; both his studio and taped bits were painful to watch. Fitchtner came across to me as a bored marble-mouthed guy who was going through the motions giving his impression of a TG main host. Like many others I only made it through about 3 Grand Tour episodes. At this point the TG format has run its course and its time for car shows to stray from the formula if they want my attention.
Haven't they figured it out? The need good improve entertainers who also love cars- not straight up car-guys and try to make the funny. Adam Carolla would've been a good choice.