I’ll always say yes to more car television shows. Cars are relatable for everyone in some form or another and the first episode of Proving Grounds, which is NBC Sports’ new car show, gives us plenty of automotive eye-candy to drool over and offers engaging hosts, all wrapped up in a terrific ‘80s aesthetic. But it doesn’t exactly offer anything groundbreaking.
(Full disclosure: Hooooo boy we are just riddled with conflicts of interest here! But we’ll try our best. Proving Grounds was shot and produced by J.F. Musial, a good friend of Jalopnik. It features Parker Kligerman, also a friend of the site and occasional writer, and Sam Smith, who once upon a time was a Jalopnik staffer, long long ago, and it’s nice to see him go out into the world and make something of himself in the land of premium cable. Also, I’m a host on another of the network’s shows, /DRIVE, which is also produced by J.F. Musial’s company, Tangent Vector. Ex-Jalopnik editor-in-chief Matt Hardigree is a writer and producer for the show as well.)
The first episode of Proving Grounds aired on NBC Sports last night. The premise of the show is straightforward. Three hosts bring new cars to a test track with various obstacles meant to even the playing field between them. Speed bumps to slow down the supercars, tricky corners to catch out the family cars, with some cardboard boxes and fake deer thrown in for drama. Each car gets introduced, tested, and ranked. A Chrysler Pacifica, for instance, competes directly against a Porsche 911 GT3.
The show’s three hosts are professional drivers Parker Kligerman and Leh Keen, as well as unprofessional driver/automotive journalist Sam Smith. Sunday evening’s episode pitted a Ford Taurus Police Interceptor against a Honda Civic Type R, along with the aforementioned Chrysler Pacifica hybrid and Porsche 911 GT3.
I don’t know if you’ve picked up on this yet, but ‘80s aesthetic has been steadily making a comeback in the automotive space. You don’t need to look further than the popularity of events like Radwood and how much E30 BMWs are selling for these days as evidence.
Proving Grounds fully embraces that look and features cuts, effects and music that bring you back to a neon-filled era. These artful splashes add nothing to the story-telling of the show, but they are a nice flair. I won’t downplay that, genuinely, this makes the show so much better to watch than the typical background music and the overly dramatic “cinematic” cuts you’d find in other shows
Though Keen doesn’t say much in this inaugural episode, Smith and Kligermans’ banter carries enough weight on its own. They are both engaging, fun, lighthearted and casual on camera. Kligerman’s track side commentary is especially captivating.
And each of them are great behind the wheel. Driving and presenting well is a tricky thing to master, but this is something the three hosts have nailed. Ex-Jalopnik editor-in-chief, Matt Hardigree, who is now a writer and producer for Proving Grounds, tweeted last night that the show doesn’t use stunt drivers, so all of the driving you see is the real thing. There’s an honesty to that that we can appreciate.
Where the show struggled was that it never felt like it was breaking new ground. Not only is it another car show hosted by three white men, it’s yet another car show hosted by three white men about fast cars driving around a race track. Smart editing or no, this is a formula that’s been seen for years on TV and YouTube.
I wish I had been surprised in the episode. I don’t consider this a spoiler when I tell you that the Porsche was the fastest car of the lot and the minivan came in dead last. If the whole premise of the show is just “let’s test all these cars in an unusual manner,” what’s the point if the results just confirm all expectations?
And it’s kind of a shame, too, because the show offers some extremely good and original insight. At the wheel of the GT3, Kligerman tells us that, contrary to popular belief, the 911 actually isn’t a stone-faced track-only machine. It revels in fun and being pushed to the limit. It likes to play. We learn from Keen that the Taurus grips surprisingly well.
These little takeaways are exclusive to the show and they are by far the most interesting part of it. It makes you wonder what kind of other fascinating stuff the hosts would come across if the tests themselves were more unconventional.