The writers for the American version of Top Gear are worried that you won’t understand it. In its debut episode, premiering Sunday night, the narration that accompanies the intro reassures: “On this TV series, no one will date a rock star. We will not ask you to vote on how people sing and dance. This is a show about cars.” Then, after the hosts introduce themselves, one continues the thought: “Now, we could get into a long, drawn-out explanation of what Top Gear is, or we can just show you what to expect over the next 10 weeks.”
Does a show called Top Gear — a copy of a British megahit, no less — really need a long, drawn-out explanation of what it’s about?
Risking nothing, the new series borrows shamelessly from its across-the-pond papa: the theme song’s the same, the set’s the same, as are its three-host formula and an anonymous test driver known as the Stig. (“You’ll never see his face, you’ll never hear his voice, and his only job is to drive as fast as he can. No one knows what’s behind that smoked visor.” Okay, we get it.) It even steals bits, including a regular segment in which celebrities race an economy car (redubbed “Big Star, Small Car”) and a challenge in which each host buys a vehicle for $1000 and then puts his purchase through various tests. (Wrongly, the recession is credited with giving the producers the idea, when the Brit Top Gear has offered similar stunts in nearly every episode.)
So what’s missing? Wit, for one thing. As well as chemistry between the hosts: comedian Adam Ferrara, NASCAR analyst Rutledge Wood, and stunt driver Tanner Foust. Maybe their inclination to over-explain the show is an attempt to define those intangibles that help keep the British show so popular. These include an easy, goofy humor courtesy of James May, Richard Hammond, and Jeremy Clarkson, who clearly enjoy each other’s company and are quick with often absurd one-liners. For instance, Clarkson introduces the British Stig by noting, “Some say his tears are adhesive, and if he caught fire, he’d burn for a thousand days.” And here’s Wood’s comment about the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution: “It looks like it fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.” Zing!
To be fair, the American trio starts relaxing by the third episode, which has them taking their $1000 cars on “moonshine runs” in North Carolina to see which vehicle holds up the best. (Without, of course, risking their cargo of Mason-jarred hooch.) In between the challenges of executing a 180-degree turn, racing through rough terrain, and trying to outrun the cops (i.e., the Stig with a siren), they’re asked to spend the night in their cars. Before they call it a day — Foust in a 1987 Nissan 300ZX, Wood in a 1987 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, and Ferrara in a comfy 1976 Cadillac Coupe de Ville — they partake of some of their haul, shoot the shit, and generally act like silly, quick-witted boys. It’s the first time they come across as endearing and Top Gear-worthy instead of irritating.
Unfortunately, the segment ends on a bum note, with Ferrara rhapsodizing, “These cars only cost $1000, but they gave us everything they had,” to unironic tinkly music.
When the hosts are in the studio, they’re surrounded by a sizable audience but the laughter sounds canned. And that’s not the only thing that seems fake. The second episode pits the aforementioned Mitsubishi against two extreme skiers, seeing whether man or machine can race down a course the quickest. Besides the fact that Foust dubs the skiers “Skittles” (ha ha, they’re wearing colorful jumpsuits!), the race, with snow, ice, and speeds for just the skiers exceeding 65 miles per hour, is fairly exciting. But then, near the end of the course, the Skittles leap over the Mitsubishi, which just happens to be driving under them when they take flight. It’s a bit too perfectly timed, and raises the suspicion that this, and other challenges, are at least partly staged.
All this leaves it up to the guests — and the cars themselves — to draw viewers. In the first three episodes available for review, the “Big Star, Small Car” segment features Buzz Aldrin, Dominic Monaghan, and Ty Burrell in a Suzuki SX4 (“$17,000 worth of front-wheel-drive acceptableness,” Ferrara says), and each one proves funnier than his hosts. (Well, the 80-year-old Aldrin at least keeps up.)
It doesn’t help that the vehicles reviewed thus far aren’t surprising (Lamborghinis, Mustangs, Aston Martins), but the shenanigans the hosts set up for themselves can be thrilling. They race a Dodge Viper versus a very cool, very stealthy AH1 Cobra Attack helicopter that’s loaded with missiles or have professional drifting champion Foust teach a blind man how to spin out. Again, though, the latter stunt is ruined by some pitiful American humor, closing the segment with the man’s seeing-eye dog peeing on set. Now if the pooch passed gas, we’d have a real winner.