After five long years, Top Gear's American cousin debuts Sunday on the History Channel. You'll probably watch it anyway - but in the words of a very successful car guy: Is it any good?
Before we answer that question, I should beg your indulgence in noting that, yes, there are Top Gear ads all over this site and its sister and brother sites as well. That's why Ray asked me to review the show, as I have a certain distance, and besides, I think Ray might have fallen into the fan zone on this one.
Anyway. It's stretching the capabilities of understatement to say that the domestic edition of Top Gear has a great deal of work cut out for it. The original BBC production is a bona-fide sensation, a hit with people who don't even like cars. At its best, it's pitch-perfect, with the casual banter between the hosts, the high production values, and the obvious love of everything automotive combining into something really magic. It's lightning in a bottle, and there's really nothing else like it. Except now, of course, the History Channel is trying to make something just like it. And judging from the three episodes we saw, they certainly have their work cut out for them.
The premiere is going to be a little strange for most viewers. There's a bit of a touring-company feel to the whole thing, a vague sense of wedding-band cover-version, especially at first. The hosts for the U. S. show - in case you're one of the four or five enthusiasts who didn't apply and therefore don't know who got your dream job - are comedian Adam Ferrara, drift champ and stunt driver Tanner Foust, and Speed Channel guy Rutledge Wood, and initially I found myself wondering if they'd ever met previously, let alone spoken to one another. There's a Stig, too, but he's introduced in such a hapless manner that you're left wondering if the other hosts even understand his function; they sort of tell you he doesn't talk, and that's about it. "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car" is now "Star In A Small Car," which is a Suzuki SX4 Sportback, rustled around their very own airport track by Buzz Aldrin in its maiden voyage after a rather wooden interview. And in the weirdest deja vu moment, the very first segment features Foust and Wood in a Viper being chased around a small Georgia town by a Cobra attack helicopter, a supposedly awesome thing we've all seen before and that seemed to be less a real TV show and more the work of incredibly well-financed and well-connected Top Gear re-enactors.
The good news is that it gets better. First, as the show goes on, the chemistry between the hosts improves by leaps and bounds. Rutledge Wood turns out to be a naturally funny guy, in a conversational sort of way, and starts to ease into his part faster than the others. Tanner Foust, the bona-fide driver of the group, actually seems comfortable with the others giving him a hard time, which will be a valuable job skill for him on this show. And Ferrara, who has the fewest car-guy credentials in the group, seems content to just hang out and almost never overplays the New York/New Jersey card.
Just as important, the segments also get less stilted as the show goes on. When Foust takes the wheel of a Lancer Evo to race two skiers down a mountain, it starts out seeming a little too familiar: Didn't Richard Hammond do something like this? But soon, you're enjoying it on its own merits, and it becomes exactly the sort of thing you want from any Top Gear. The same goes for a segment when the hosts challenge Foust to teach a blind man how to drift and then square off against him in a series of car-control challenges; the idea is familiar, but the execution starts to take on its own personality, especially when they're smart enough to take the guide dog along.
The show finally starts coming into its own in the third episode's Whiskey Challenge, in which each host is given a thousand bucks to buy a car and then take on a series of tests designed to celebrate America's bootleggers, without whom we wouldn't have so much of our great American motoring tradition. Whatever. The important part is that we finally get to the part of Top Gear that's universally loved - crap cars and good times. While it's not without its flaws, it's pretty darn good. Yes, rustbuckets go flying thick and fast, and so do the obvious stereotype jokes, but that's OK. Suddenly, about the time they figure out how to have fun with a trunk full of raw white whiskey and an open campfire, this stops being someone's fairly good idea of what Top Gear is and becomes a pretty good show about guys messing around with cars. And by the time they throw a big ol' Fleetwood off a dirt ramp, you stop wondering if you could do a better job than these guys and start wishing you had these guys' jobs. You aren't quite wishing you were these guys yet, but all in good time.
So yes, watch this show. At least record the first episode, just so History Channel folks know you're paying attention. But by all means, by the third episode you should have the snack tray full and an hour free, because this show has a damn good chance of being, if not lightning in a bottle, then white lightning in a jar. Rougher, at least at first. But no less fun.