History Channel is working on a U.S. version of the smash British hit “Top Gear” for the fall. But will it translate?
The original is a fantastically fun car show, airing in recent years on BBC America, that has built a loyal following in the States for its beautifully lingering, slick cinematography (it’s been described, accurately, as car porn), outrageously fun stunts and snappy banter among its three charismatic hosts (blowhard Jeremy Clarkson, James “Captain Slow” May and the wee Richard Hammond).
A sneak peek of the American version was released last week at the annual Television Critics Association press tour. My first impression? Color me unimpressed with the bland hosts and a stunt that’s more “Jackass” than “Top Gear.” And dude, if you’ve seen the original, 167 mph in a four-door is no big deal.
Compare that to this scene from the British version:
History’s version will be hosted by comedian Adam Ferrara (“Rescue Me”), stunt- and rally-car driver Tanner Foust and Speed Channel NASCAR analyst Rutledge Wood. Or as seen in the video, two guys in flannels and one guy in a T-shirt.
American television has a wretched record of adapting and ruining great British shows. The most recent example was last year’s “Green Car Challenge” on the ill-fated “Jay Leno Show,” which copied the brilliant “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” segment from “Top Gear” and turned it into an embarrassing, shockingly boring jaunt through a clown camp in a Prius that barely topped 25 mph. On this note, I have faith that the U.S. version will do better. It’s really hard to imagine it could do worse. The U.S. show’s format sounds familiar — auto reviews, test tracks and crazy stunts. Insurance policies and lack of imagination will probably keep a damper on things, but there’s potential for fun here, if done right.
But success will depend on more than just copying the original’s formula. The appeal of the British “Top Gear” is as much its tongue-in-cheek attitude as what appears onscreen: The insults and inside jokes among the hosts, the politically incorrect (but funny) screw-the-environment attitude; the gleeful lust for horsepower, sleek designs and cornering ability above all else; even the barely concealed contempt for American cars. It’s watching snarky boys having an utter blast with their grown-up toys, and that sense of fun is what grabs viewers. And that will be hard to replicate. Based on the admittedly brief clip that’s been shown, I don’t see any of that.
I suppose it can be done, but it’s not easy finding that perfect balance of chemistry and flow. “MythBusters” has a similar vibe to “Top Gear” and is probably the best example on American TV. But for every “MythBusters,” there’s a “Deadliest Warrior” (which should be a lot more fun than it is) or “Smash Lab” (which somehow managed to make explosions boring).
But even if they pull all that off, there’s the matter of advertisers, and this might be the most troublesome issue. The BBC show doesn’t have commercials, so the hosts are free to criticize and mock the cars they review. But can you imagine Chrysler being a sponsor for the U.S. version if the hosts are allowed to rip the latest Dodge Challenger? I just don’t see them being given free rein to be fearless and say what they want.
Don’t underestimate the exotic factor either. Anything is cooler with a British accent (it’s a fact, you can look it up). The British version offers a steady stream of the unfamiliar: Vauxhalls, Fiats and even Citroens top the average ol’ Ford Taurus or Chevy Malibu. Throw in Maseratis, Koenigseggs and Zondas, and it’s no contest. Sorry Corvette, but the purr of those high-powered European engines are way more intoxicating.
The final straw? There’s reportedly no Stig in the U.S. version. That’s just inexcusable. Without the silent, secret mystery man tearing around the track in supercars, we’ll have . . . . what? This baffles me. They couldn’t get a former NASCAR driver to get behind the wheel? The Stig’s laps at breakneck speeds are one of the highlights of every episode. Without it, it’s not “Top Gear.”
I’m judging a lot on a 2-minute clip and pure conjecture. I’ll definitely give the new show a try and give it a chance to prove me wrong. But realistically, I’m keeping my expectations very, very low.
Thank goodness the originals will still be airing on BBC America.
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