(American) Top Gear’s Premiere

Going against the opinion of almost any fan of the BBC’s wonderful TV series, Top Gear, a US version premiered tonight on the History Channel. Really, there are a couple WTFs in that sentence. I mean, the original is so loved by car enthusiasts that even the best attempt is destined to be met with disdain. On top of that: why The History Channel? I guess all the first- and second-tier channels had better judgment, or at least much less tolerance for risk and scorn. At least the early idea to have Adam Carolla host was tossed; maybe the History Channel had some better sense than the previously interested parties.

Anyway, like I said, there’s really no way this show can win, and maybe that’s why I didn’t hate it. It follows the original show’s formula to a T: silly car challenges; hot, exotic cars on runway; guys palling around doing what must be a dream job (for however long it lasts); high production quality with over-processed footage; an American Stig. I’m not the first one to say this, though: Top Gear isn’t really about the cars as much as it is the personalities of the hosts. It didn’t start out that way, but that’s the Top Gear that “petrol heads” everywhere love. Seriously opinionated, damn-it-all personalities making a show that any car lover dreams of being part of.

In that way, this first episode was strained. Obviously aware of the huge shoes they have to fill, these guys clearly are just trying to have some fun and hope that shows through. It does in spots, but there are obviously scripted parts that are just plain awkward. Still, it’s the first episode and it mostly does better than it had any right to do. Here are a couple of things I think they should do in the future:

  • Don’t be afraid to break from the BBC show and do something original. The Stig is a fun character on the British show, but he (it?) feels tacked on here. It would be better to leave the Stig to the Brits and just have a racing driver with a personality, a track record (no pun intended) and credentials maybe chime in with his opinions on the cars and the run he did in them.

  • The track has a few smart decisions in its layout. It appears to favor cars with raw speed in the straights quite a bit, which is a good idea if the producers don’t want American cars getting trashed all the time by more sophisticated foreign competition. They shouldn’t have felt, however, that they had to give UK Top Gear-style names to the turns, but rather should have let them get named over time by events on the show.

  • Most of all, we need to see that the hosts are interesting, funny guys that we want to spend an hour with. Luckily, they didn’t go out and find clones for each of the roles of the UK hosts. On the other hand, they need to develop personalities pretty quickly. There were some funny, seemingly honest moments, but they need more.

  • They need to trash on some cars. Until the audience believes that they’ll dish honestly on a shitty car, even one that is too expensive for most viewers to ever own, they won’t have the kind of respect the UK hosts have.

In all, I’ll keep it on my TiVo for now. But I totally expect it to be solidly panned by both critics and fans of the original, and I don’t know how long the format can withstand the pressure. We’ll have to see, I guess.