I’m a fairly car-obsessed 20-something. When I’m not researching ways to fix my own cars, I’m watching videos about cars. I’m no stranger to a shop and I find fart humor quite refreshing, pardon the pun. I’m exactly the demographic that networks want when they launch new car shows. Why, then, do I think they all suck?

Lightning in a bottle is the phrase that describes the ability to capture something truly unique. It also means that the person capturing that certain something has no goddamn clue how to make it happen again. This is inherently the problem with network executives - instead of having new genres and concepts pop up and take chances, the knowledge that we as a public are creatures of habit means that just like toddlers who want to see a never-ending marathon of Wow Wow Wubbzy, we’ll binge watch something we moderately tolerate because it hits all those same pleasure centers, if only just.

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Survivor was the hit that catapulted the reality show genre into the mainstream. Instead of scripted bits where trained actors who were paid lots of money threw out quips and one-liners set to a laugh track, low-paid regular narcissists and borderline sociopaths were given a venue to be real - and the public bought into it because, as it turns out, what people really want - more than to laugh or cry - is a 22-minute train wreck.

Schadenfreude, the ability to derive joy from another’s misfortune, is the overwhelming emotion that urges people to turn on their televisions and watch My 600-lb. Life. It’s the sole reason TMZ exists and why WorldStarHipHop is cultural force that makes money rain.

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And it’s made its way into car shows.

If you watch an episode of Discovery’s breakout hit Fast N Loud because you’re a glutton for punishment like I am, you’ll notice that the first priorities of the show are (1) to introduce the show’s characters - all portraying a different one-dimensional stereotype - and (2) manufacture drama. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, here’s an abridged synopsis of every single episode:

  • Richard Rawlings, owner of Gas Monkey Garage, gets a tip about some car left in a field for 20 years, goes to check out said car with the approximate value of $25,000
  • Cut to interview with Richard Rawlings in studio, recalling what we’re seeing him do in real time just so we’re not confused in any way.
  • Upon arrival, sees said $25,000 car and after kvetching about the price, buys the car for $1,500 plus some Gas Monkey t-shirts, Gas Monkey tequila, and a 100-count value pack of Gas Monkey medical-grade colostomy bags.
  • Cut to interview with Richard Rawlings in studio, recalling what we’re seeing him do in real time just so we’re not confused in any way.
  • 10 minutes of commercials
  • Car gets to the garage, all the mechanics proclaim it to be the worst car they’ve ever seen while trying hard not to stare directly into the camera that’s feeding them lines. They make jokes because bad humor is better than no humor, right?
  • Cut to interview with Richard Rawlings in studio, recalling what we’re seeing him do in real time just so we’re not confused in any way.
  • Richard’s wealthy frat buddy makes him an arbitrary $500,000 bet to make the $1,500 car into a clone of the car that was in a movie in which all actors have long since died of old age.
  • Richard has 24 hours and that includes delivering the car to Australia along with five metric tons of grade-A Texas moonshine.
  • Cut to interview with Richard Rawlings in studio, recalling what we’re seeing him do in real time just so we’re not confused in any way.
  • Richard gathers the crew, gives a pep talk about how he’s going to have to sell his body to science if this build doesn’t get done on time and on budget. THEY CANNOT SCREW THIS UP.
  • Car doesn’t start / parts don’t fit / one of the mechanics quits / everyone at the shop takes a day off for some reason / all of the above.
  • 10 minute commercial break
  • 30 second snippet of the mechanics doing stuff that isn’t working on cars.
  • Five minute commercial break - now brought to you by Dodge!
  • Remember all that drama that unfolded in the 3rd act? Forget all that. The car is done, with enough time for a fully rehearsed skit, except instead of actors, we have Gas Monkey employees.
  • Richard meets with said rich guy, now immeasurably drunk.
  • Richard receives $500,000 cash, with the car visibly rough to anyone that knows anything about cars. They do a burnout because burnouts equal quality. They celebrate at Gas Monkey Bar and Grill - now brought to you by Dodge!
  • Cut to interview with Richard Rawlings in studio, recalling what we’re seeing him do in real time just so we’re not confused in any way.
  • Woo!

Not only is the the formula for nearly every episode for that show, but spin-offs like Misfit Garage, a show that revolves entirely around the employees Richard Rawlings has fired, march in lockstep with this paint-by-numbers technique of film making and it’s multiplying.

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Recently, I had the chance to see two advance-screening episodes of NBCSN’s new car show Mobsteel, with the show revolving around a modification shop in the Detroit area, specializing in cars that have a mafia-esque presence. Their first featured car was a late ‘60s-era Lincoln Continental, an undoubtedly cool model that would be a great showcase of any fabrication and custom shop’s talents, except for the glaring and egregious fault in every new car show released today - it’s never about the cars.

Mobsteel is a shameless Fast N Loud clone, which in itself is a clone of a hundred other shows that didn’t make it, relegated to the Velocity network, a channel that actively tries to make the joy of car ownership as niche and unnattractive to newcomers as stamp collecting is to, well, everyone.

It plants itself firmly on the “scripted reality first” bandwagon by introducing the show’s various characters first, a feat that takes up the first 13 minutes of the first episode. That’s right, no actual car work is even mentioned for the first third of a car show’s 45 minute run time, because that makes perfect sense.

Instead, we’re treated to the layout of the company’s hierarchy, comprised of the wide-eyed owner, the stern owner’s wife who deals with the finances, the mechanics who all have some particular thing they do, and the customers who have the appeal of a dropped ice cream cone.

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But here’s why shows like this exist - they appeal to the people who think of custom cars only as a rich person’s plaything, living vicariously through the big-money decisions of those that they don’t care to emulate, but wouldn’t mind living like, if only the universe smiled on them at the right time.

Those same people also would experience a guilty thrill in seeing the shop both metaphorically and literally crash and burn for missing a deadline or producing a sub-par automobile, so they stick around until the end because that’s when the big suspenseful reveal happens. While these sorts of cookie cutter shows do have entertainment value for people who don’t have 10w30 running through their veins, it comes at the cost of the coverage of the often very interesting vehicles that these shops do build from time to time.

Instead, we get slow motion shots of mechanics grinding down metal stock for no discernible reason.

According to NBCSN, nearly one million people tuned in to Mobsteel’s first episode, which is quite the validation that this model does indeed work even if it falls short of the Survivor standard by a fair margin.

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Why, then, do I feel like there’s no room for me at the table as a car enthusiast and how can we solve this problem for good?

Top Gear works (worked?) because of the chemistry between the presenters, but it held the support of car enthusiasts like me because it maintained an emphasis on the love of the automobile. The cars chosen in each episode told a necessary story and were just as revered as their punch-happy drivers, which is what shows like Mobsteel and Fast N Loud are sorely missing.

I’ll be willing to wager that other die-hard car nuts would echo my sentiment. The shows - the truly good car shows that are few and far between - are about the interactions we as enthusiasts have with cars, and not the fact that they only serve as placeholders for the next Miller Lite spot.

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There’s an underlying reason why shows like Wheeler Dealers have a modicum of success but a high repeat viewership rate, despite Edd China having the on-screen persona of that 3rd grade English teacher you sort of liked. It’s the reason why Jay Leno’s Garage pulls in a massive audience despite most, if not all of the videos being made on a shoestring budget relative to their network counterparts.

These shows focus solely on the passion of the automobile, with the rest of the fluff and filler being treated as such. There are no deadlines, no manufactured controversy, and most importantly, no needless in-fighting between the owner and the shop manager, even though I’d probably pay to see a slap fight between Jay and Bernard.

YouTube giants Marty and Moog from Mighty Car Mods are in the same boat, providing DIY content and automotive builds with a million-strong audience, grown organically - and none of the channels and shows mentioned would be as significant in this space without the support of actual car lovers, needlessly obsessing over every minute detail, and that’s inherently the difference between home-grown shows and the network claptrap - it’s in the fact that while you can manufacture conflict, you can’t fake passion.

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We, as multiple generations of car lovers owe it to ourselves to support the shows that not only open us to new automotive experiences and viewpoints, but give us more of the automotive content we want, more of the time.

Otherwise, all we’ll have is networks selling us a dream no one asked for, wearing a Gas Monkey t-shirt no one wanted.

(Photo Credit: NBC Sports Group, Wikipedia)


Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes and makes videos aboutbuying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world’s cheapestMercedes S-Class, a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he’s the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn’t feel was journalist-y enough so he used a pen name and this was the best he could do.

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You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He won’t mind.