The show Top Gear is highly revered in car enthusiast circles. Combining stunning visuals, wit, and humor, the British show has been the only one to successfully communicate the joys of being a gear head to non-gearheads. As such, it has grown quite popular aboard, and therefore must be copied and changed for U.S. consumption. The result is Top Gear USA with three hosts: Tanner Foust, Rutledge Wood, and Adam Ferrara. Moderate success in its first season has led to a renewal for a second season. The first season was plagued by poor host chemistry, lame jokes, and mediocre car segments. However, many of those negatives started to be chipped away as the show gelled. I was hoping that this season’s debut on Sunday would continue the momentum that the first season had gained.
The opening was quite jarring. Usually, there is a segment inside the studio outlining the show and some playful banter by the hosts. This time, you the viewer were dropped right in the middle of Texas for the show’s one and only segment: using old cars as pickup replacements for under $2,000. This strategy was quite smart. The average History channel viewer usually does not like cars, so opening immediately into the desert, in Texas, with pickups involved is sure to rope in non-enthusiast viewers. A cheap pickup challenge is wholly appropriate as well for American viewers. So, boring Ferrara voiceover aside, the show showed early promise.
The hosts then presented their car choices for the challenge. Foust bought a 80s BMW 3 series, Wood bought an early 90s Miata, and Ferrara bought a 70s Ford Maverick. It was here that the show began to worry me. A cheap pickup challenge is a great opportunity to involve little loved, but highly funny automotive orphans. Top Gear UK does this regularly. For instance, Top Gear USA could have used old El Caminos, Subaru Brats, and Ford Rancheros. Ferrara actually got closest to this since he bought a Ford Maverick which shared a platform with the Ranchero. Ferrara even cut the back out of the Maverick, effectively creating a Ranchero. Odd car choices aside, the segment did not turn me off just yet.
To go along with the pickup theme, the challenges were mixes of cowboy nostalgia and modern hauling capability. Oh, and turning all the cars into monster trucks for some reason or another. The segments were pretty funny, but you didn’t hear much about the cars at all. Wood, Ferrara, and Tanner would make references to say the BMW being preppy and full of tech, but gave no facts or stories behind such statements. As the show went on, it felt more like a reality show with cars, instead of a show about cars.
Also, there weren’t enough jokes about pickups in general. Top Gear USA could have used this segment as a jumping off point to make fun of suburban cowboys in their always clean pickup trucks. On the other hand, they could have showed the importance pickup trucks still play in the American workforce. That’s the great thing about the original Top Gear; they plug cars into larger societal issues, sometimes serious, sometimes just to make a jab at people. This makes the show more light-hearted and fun. Without this element, the show is too dry and one dimensional, especially for those that aren’t huge car buffs.
I chalk many of these shortcomings up to this episode being the season premier. The History Channel seems to have tried to attract new viewers by dumbing down the automotive aspect of the show as much as possible. In this respect, they were successful since this Top Gear USA debut had more viewers than the first season. Besides, the show is still leagues better than The Car Show, which we also reviewed. My only fear is that History dumbs down the show too much in an attempt to grab viewers, stripping all car content out in the process. TV has enough lowest common denominator content on already, from Toddlers and Tiaras to Jersey Shore. There is no need to have another vapid, boring reality TV show on the air, even if it has cars. If Top Gear USA can add some car content back in, and improve the writing just a touch, the show could be great.
I hope my fears are unfounded when I turn in next week, which looks to be a lot of fun. There will be the Ferrari 458 review, and a review of the hosts’ first cars. This premier might just of had a case of stage fright.
Top Gear USA is on the History Channel at 10/9c. You can visit their website here.