By on August 3, 2017

Top Gear America screengrab

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.

Top Gear America screengrab

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.

Top Gear America screengrab

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.”

Top GeaTop Gear America screengrabr America

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.

Top Gear America screengrab

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.

Top Gear America screengrab

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.

Top Gear America screengrab

[Images: BBC America]

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51 Comments on “Did Anyone Else Think the Premiere of Top Gear America Was an Absolute Disaster?...”


  • avatar

    I’m glad that the Civic hatch (which I own) made an appearance, but the characters did not mesh well at all. It’s not the chemistry that the original trio have, that’s for damn sure.

  • avatar
    notapreppie

    Honestly, I found The Grand Tour to be somewhat lacking when you take into account the fact that Jim, Dick and Jezza are all seasoned veterans with good chemistry.

    I didn’t dislike it, per-se, but it just didn’t grab me the same way as the 20 ft boa constrictor of Top Gear.

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    There’s a new American Top Gear? That’s a nearly unwinnable uphill battle.

    I’ve seen a few episodes of the post-Clarkson British Top Gear and think it isn’t half bad. The uniqueness of the show format is long gone now, so they’re unlikely to reproduce the popularity of it during the good Clarkson-Hammond-May years, but LeBlanc is likeable and I was impressed by the few Chris Harris reviews I saw.

    It’s better than the Grand Tour. Even squawky, hyper little Chris Evans was better than the Grand Tour.

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      What was so terrible about the Grand Tour?

      I watched maybe 2-3 episodes myself, I honestly didn’t like it much. It feels like later Top Gear episodes with all too obvious staged stunts and b movie sfx mixing.

      • 0 avatar
        merkidemis

        Yeah, three words: Celebrity Brain Crash. Also, the several instances of Clarkson’s “inventions” like the autonomous car with an immigrant in it. The actual car segments and obviously staged challenges with the truth sticking out wildly from the thin veneer were ok, but I think we’d like lit more truth to those.

        I was sad when TG:USA left. The hosts were getting their chemistry going pretty well, and I liked that they avoided the honestly pointless fluff of studio guests in the later seasons. (Yeah, TG:UK has had a few good interviews, but most of the time I just fast forwarded through the interviews) It was the most entertaining parts of UK TG: mostly fake challenges and road tests.

    • 0 avatar
      Guitar man

      I preferred Fifth Gear really. Particularly the bit where they compared cars with the ghost car thing.

      But it was too technical and upset women and children so the suits at Channel 5 dumped it.

  • avatar
    Zarf

    I never thought I’d say this, but I missed Tanner….
    Also the editing of the Stig lap was horrible. It was like they edited together 30 individual laps that had nothing to do with each other. You never get to actually see the track or what is happening as the image just flips from one useless angle to another.

    Kind of the same issue with the Star lap.
    It gets one more attempt and if it isn’t loads better it will be removed from the DVR list.

  • avatar
    SearMizok

    I do like the original cast much better!!

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    The version with Tanner, Foust and Ferrara sucked so bad initially that I never watched it again. It does take a while for chemistry, writing, etc. to catch up I suppose. But the American version has always felt forced, has always felt like the copy it is. Then there’s the fact it’s on basic cable, with probably 1/8th the budget of the Beeb.

    The success of Clarkson, Hammond and May will never be duplicated. Anywhere. And the Grand Tour was a bit pokey at the start too. My wife will watch Grand Tour (and old Top Gear) with me. Can’t say the same about Motorweek for example. It ain’t just about the cars.

    • 0 avatar
      jpolicke

      The trio were so good as a team. You can’t just plug a new face in and expect to carry on as if nothing has changed. It would be like replacing Groucho and pretending that it’s still the same Marx Brothers.

    • 0 avatar
      notwhoithink

      “The version with Tanner, Foust and Ferrara sucked so bad initially that I never watched it again.”

      The first couple of episodes weren’t bad, though they suffered from a lack of chemistry. The problem was that they quickly settled into the stereotypes of “loud New Yorker” versus “brash Southerner” plus a hamster. Then, in later episodes, they completely gave up on the Top Gear format (no studio, no track, no car reviews) and went solely with “let’s give each guy $4000 to buy a beater than they can use to cross to participate in this challenge” type of TV. In other words, it was typical Discovery Networks reality garbage.

      This new one is going to be garbage as well, I think. None of the hosts are compelling or interesting. The only one I’d ever heard of before is Fichter, the creepy-looking guy who always plays creepy characters in every role he plays. No thanks. Couldn’t even be bothered to set the DVR.

    • 0 avatar
      barryfaetheus

      Speaking of Motorweek, what is it with the host of that show? I wonder if he is capable of speaking in a normal tone, or is only able to speak like the movie theater announcement guy. For that reason alone, I cannot watch it.

  • avatar
    71charger_fan

    Choosing to put that Baja bug segment in the first episode where it was impossible to hear the commentary over the screaming of the engines and they had to rely on subtitles seemed a poor choice.

  • avatar

    I don’t think it deserves all the hate that it’s getting. The dude from Prison Break seems to be a genuine car guy, and I enjoyed the Raptor segment.

    Sure, the Baja hit was a bit hokey, but so were many of the original Top Gear ones.. Like everything else, I think we need to give them some time to find their rhythm and chemistry before persecuting them.

    • 0 avatar
      merkidemis

      The Raptor segment was a little weird for me, with Fichter waxing on about how the basic workman’s truck was a thing of the past and everything was getting too expensive and complicated…oh this new $50K truck is amazing! (Yeah, I get it’s not the pampered soft roader a lot of luxury trucks are now. But come on, 90% of Raptor owners will do the same amount of off-roading that 90% of Wrangler owners do: none)

  • avatar
    Stanley Steamer

    It had an unnatural ending. I think Jay Leno has the best car show on television at the moment, probably only bested by his online car specific mini-episodes, but that’s a matter of taste.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    What we call ‘Classic Top Gear’ was like catching lightning in a bottle.

    There was an original Top Gear that ran from 1977 to 2001 and was moderately successful.

    Clarkson and producer Andy Wilman revamped and introduced a revised Top Gear in 2002. May joined the following year. This is the ‘classic Top Gear’ which ran 2003 to 2015. It was not a ‘automotive’ show. It was a comedy, travel, social commentary, road trip ‘buddy’ picture, and history lesson, all rolled into one with vehicles as the link.

    This was the key to its success. It transcended automobiles and was watched by those with zero interest in car reviews, repairs, driving lessons, or racing. Clarkson became a cultural and media icon.

    Any other version of Top Gear, be it the new U.K. version or either American version remind me of ‘cover bands’. Yes they play the same tunes and try to imitate the actions, looks and vibe of the original but they are just imitations.

    However, I would very much like to see Sabine Schmitz join The Grand Tour. She is a very useful contributor.

    • 0 avatar

      What we call ‘Classic Top Gear’ was like catching lightning in a bottle.

      Correct.
      I’m reminded of attempts to re-boot Stat Trek, some of which are better than others, but you could not reproduce the Shatner-Nimoy-Kelly dynamic until they came up with fully other characters.

      • 0 avatar
        JohnTaurus

        Very well put.

      • 0 avatar
        jalop1991

        “I’m reminded of attempts to re-boot Star Trek, some of which are better than others, but you could not reproduce the Shatner-Nimoy-Kelly dynamic until they came up with fully other characters.”

        I think Big Bang Theory captured it perfectly, when Sheldon asked Leonard (as part of the roommate interview): “Kirk or Picard?”

        Leonard’s answer was perfect: “Original Series over Next Generation, but Picard over Kirk.”

    • 0 avatar
      gearhead77

      Absolutely this.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      “However, I would very much like to see Sabine Schmitz join The Grand Tour. She is a very useful contributor.”

      I liked her too. She gave Clarkson every bit back what he dished out. That made her a stand out. The Florence to his George Jefferson. I like Clarkson, just like I like the George Jefferson character, but its more fun when they have a sparing partner.

      • 0 avatar
        RHD

        She is certainly a very talented driver, but a bit of a condescending b!tch. We have way too many of those on television already. Vicky Butler-Henderson comes off as more genuine, is much sweeter and a heck of a driver as well.
        Top Gear America will probably go after the female demographic (like ESPN does) by replacing one of the guys with Danica Patrick.

  • avatar
    kefkafloyd

    The age of Top Gear has come and gone, we are now in the era of Regular Car Reviews, and it is good.

  • avatar
    Fred

    The thing about TV especiall these “reality” car shows, is they rely on formula that’s pretty much ruled by production costs. Then they repeat it over and over until you lose interest. If they really want to get me interested, try something new and different.

    • 0 avatar
      RS

      Production costs are allegedly what ended Wheeler Dealers as we know it. With Ed that show was unique and interesting. Overall it worked well. Evidently showing details about car restoration/refurbishing with a good dose of mechanical details and history isn’t as cost effective as a contrived soap opera.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        I loved the Wheeler Dealers episodes that were centered around crossing the United States by buying and flipping vehicles. That is a set I’d be happy to own on DVD/Blu-Ray.

        • 0 avatar
          jpolicke

          I enjoyed Edd more than Mike, who occasionally grated on me. All in all they were a good team. Maybe try Edd as a presenter.

        • 0 avatar
          Syke

          Funny, but the year they moved the show to The States is far and away my least favorite season of the bunch. Gee, lets do another bunch of Corvettes and muscle cars.

          Followed by the season where they’re transformed from guys who restore classic cars to original to guys who are now modifying the cars they fix. Just what we need, another hot rod/custom show.

          The original, located in England, let’s take a car that isn’t well known and restore it to proper originality show keeps me enthralled. I keep hitting On Demand to see if there are any other episodes I’ve missed.

      • 0 avatar
        denvertsxer

        Wheeler Dealers is over?!? Awwww, damn.

      • 0 avatar
        notwhoithink

        “Production costs are allegedly what ended Wheeler Dealers as we know it.”

        They were, but not really. If a much smaller UK-based production company could profitably produce episodes of Wheeler Dealers for a much smaller UK-based audience (and then sell it off in syndication) and manage to be profitable, then there’s no reason that a company with the size, reach, and deep pockets of Discovery couldn’t do the same. The problem was that the Discovery production people felt that it was “too complicated” to shoot the detail-oriented restorations, and it made production costs higher compared to their other programs in a similar vein where the technical work is secondary to the “reality” of shop drama. Discovery basically said “we have a whole slate of restoration and customization shows that cost less to make than Wheeler Dealers, why should we do it the expensive way?” But they were ignoring that they were comparing a technical education/documentary type of show to basic reality TV with cars. It was a false equivalency that has undoubtedly cost them most of their audience.

        • 0 avatar
          Syke

          And they were messing with one of only two shows (the other being Chasing Classic Cars) where the interest is in restoring a car to original, not being a custom shop.

          And yes, I occasionally watch Graveyard Cars, which is the same kind, but that’s all Mopar muscle cars, which limits it’s interest to me. I’d love to see them take on a slant 6, 1970 Valiant 4-door sedan, just for something different – but I can imagine what their costs are.

  • avatar
    Nick 2012

    The show holds some promise, and I’ll watch another episode. Tom Ford solidly performed on Fifth Gear and Fichtner is a solid host.

  • avatar
    cicero1

    There was something about the Stig’s driving that made me think its Tanner – not sure if he would return to do just that but you could not find a better driver.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    Why didn’t they just keep the old TGUSA trio? They were actually quite good in later episodes. They were also smart enough to can the studio segments.

    ” about as believable as a low-milage Crown Victoria”

    Hey! I resent that!

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      +1 I really enjoyed the old trio, they clearly started to gel and seem to be really having fun on set. Having Tanner involved gave the show some credibility. This new group is so random, it feels like they were picked from a later group of contenders but then forced into working together and hate every bit of it. Having some random Britsh guy is just plain dumb. A drag racer? Commenting on how cars handle? Why not give us some ex-NASCAR or Indy driver? I couldn’t even make it thru the first segment. It was completely unwatchable. I am sad :(

      Jay Leno’s show is pretty much my American Top Gear now.

      • 0 avatar
        Ryoku75

        I suppose one British guy is supposed to make up for the loss of three?

        I’m watching it right now, the first introductory minute by the hosts read more akin to a press release than anything a normal person would say.

        The previews..okay I suppose, I look forward to the inevitable crap car challenge in future episodes. Even during “good” Top Gear episodes I tend to skim the car reviews and the celebrity interview bits.

    • 0 avatar
      notwhoithink

      “Why didn’t they just keep the old TGUSA trio? They were actually quite good in later episodes. They were also smart enough to can the studio segments.”

      That was half the problem. In the later seasons they abandoned everything in the show that make it interesting to watching, and turned it into multiple episodes of “give them each a $3000 car and send them on a challenge” TV.

      • 0 avatar
        Ryoku75

        “give them each a $3000 car and send them on a challenge in which Tanner will win”

        I didnt mind this, these were my favorite kind of Top Gear episodes!

  • avatar

    I have seen TopGear America episodes in the past. It proves the British saying: Americans understand humor, they don’t understand irony. The Brits sold most of their car brands to foreigners who did a far better job in managing them, but the Brits remain the best in making car shows. My favorite show is CAR S.O.S. btw.

  • avatar
    devonair

    Hmm… I’m actually surprised at the love for Fichtner. Sure, his acting experience does make him more comfortable on camera, but everything he said just felt… well… like he was acting. It felt too scripted, too fake. *shrug*

  • avatar

    “we already have a Top Gear worth watching in the U.S. — it’s called The Grand Tour.”

    Nu uh.

  • avatar

    Project Binky on YouTube. ‘Nough said.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      Good point.

      Youtube basically has the market cornered on quality car content, especially if you’re an enthusiast with specific tastes. It’s unfortunate that Bad Obsession Motorsport only updates once every six months now.

  • avatar
    BrianL

    I tried watching it, I didn’t finish the episode. I thought that the “live celebrity lap” was absolutely horrible. The commentary from the cast on that particular section felt repetitive and unpolished. It shouldn’t be done like that in the future. And seriously, why couldn’t they have had 3 buggies when doing the baja trip? It was horrible. I love the grand tour. I won’t be giving Top Gear America another shot.

  • avatar
    Acd

    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.

  • avatar
    carve

    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.


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