Growing up in Michigan, there reached a point in most folks’ evolution where they stopped being an individual and instead embraced the redneck stereotype. These are kids who could be top of their class, or high-level athletes, or whatever the case may be—and at some point, they grew a beard, started wearing nothing but camo, and throwing around Confederate flags like it was no big deal. Because that’s just what you did in that town. That’s kind of what Netflix’s “The Crew” reminds me of.
“The Crew” is NASCAR’s answer to the recent influx of racing content that’s been hitting the entertainment market. You’ve got stuff like Formula One’s “Drive to Survive” documentary or the upcoming fictional film about a failed racer turned getaway driver. As a racing fan, it’s exciting to see these opportunities popping up. Maybe it’ll change some minds about racing or get someone interested that wasn’t before.
But NASCAR is so comfortable in its stereotypes that it doesn’t have any incentive to break them, and that’s where “The Crew” comes in. It’s a celebration of the negative perceptions people have about NASCAR. Vapid, self-obsessed driver? Check. Seasoned veteran team leader that hates any inkling of change? Check. Brainy, Silicon Valley millennial woman who serves as the villain because she wants to change things up? Absolutely. Pop culture-loving nerd that serves as the butt of jokes? Yep, that’s there, too. Most of the jokes rely on worn-out clichés that women, vegetarians, nerds, and millennials are all inherently laughable.
I know it’s a sitcom, and the whole premise of a sitcom is the fact that it makes fun of its topic. But there’s nothing that’s particularly interesting about “The Crew.” I could see the trajectory of the show as soon as Catherine was introduced—Catherine, who’s the smart, politically correct, and NASCAR-inept daughter of the big Southern team owner who decides he wants to retire to have a good time. Kevin James’s character resents her presence, her efforts to analyze where the team is lacking and why they’re slipping into backmarker territory. The whole show can be summarized pretty efficiently by Sadie Gennis over at Variety:
Like most of James’ characters, Kevin is a self-deprecating man-child who loves old-school values, cheap beer, and protecting the status quo, which makes having to listen to his progressive new boss a challenge. A Stanford grad who found success in Silicon Valley, Catherine has little in common with her new employees, but brings to the table several strategic, forward-thinking ideas for how the team could break out of their rut and become real contenders in racing. However, none of the crew have any interest in listening to Catherine, and the majority of the season is spent with Kevin leading the charge to undermine Catherine at every turn, with Kevin preferring to enable mediocrity rather than strive for the highest levels of success (a sentiment that could also speak to James’ seeming approach to his career).
It seems like one of the main themes of the show is how frequently men are upset at women infiltrating their traditionally testosterone-drenched sphere. Jake, the dopey driver, can’t see a woman without hitting on her. Catherine is consistently undermined by all the good ol’ boys. Jessie, who serves as Catherine’s choice as a replacement driver for Jake, is dismissed because Kevin thinks the only people who could want to see a female driver succeed are “old guys wanting to hit on her.” The woman in the show treated with the most respect is Beth, the office manager, and that’s because she’s one of Kevin’s potential love interests.
The show assumes that viewers are going to identify with Kevin, which I’m sure is true in some respects. A lot of folks in the racing world have struggled to join the 21st century, which largely includes resenting the fact that women are a more prevalent factor. I’m sure everyone who reads Jalopnik knows I spend a lot of time countering those stereotypes. It’s exhausting to have them represented as sympathetic in a television program that NASCAR is going to spend the entire season promoting.
I can’t help but wonder how much more interesting the series would be if it was told from Catherine’s or Beth’s point of view, or if any of the women in the show were presented as being more sympathetic, or if “The Crew” just changed the focus ever so slightly. I get that Catherine’s goal—making the team more effective—doesn’t make for fun-loving sitcom-worthy television, but nothing she’s doing is actually a bad thing. She’s doing her job. Presenting that as a negative—and presenting mediocrity as the entire goal—just makes NASCAR look laughable and frankly embarrassing.
And that’s not even bringing up the cringe-worthy product placement (the first episode reads like a heavy-handed Dunkin’ Donuts ad) or the shots of three different tracks smooshed together to represent a single race (which the show writer and producer pegged on COVID-19 delays and prioritizing the story over accuracy). Some of the jokes were funny—I actually laughed at Jake trying to film a commercial for Fake Steak, and the consistent shade thrown at Ryan Blaney during his cameos was excellent—but there was nothing about the show that made me want to keep watching, let alone recommend to others or throw on the television again.
Yes, things kind of started to change as the show went on, but it took four hours for viewers to get to the point where Kevin started to realize that all of Catherine’s no-fun mandates actually had a purpose: the team is desperate for money and might actually fold if it doesn’t, y’know, hire a driver that can bring in tons of sponsor money or stop using the corporate account to pick up the bar tab. But by that point, I had pretty much checked out. The series ends on a cliffhanger that leaves everything unresolved, so Catherine is still the villain and Beth has been reduced to a love interest for Kevin and a woman who desperately wants to get married. I’m not exactly aching for a second season.
I wanted to enjoy “The Crew” because I want to enjoy any smidge of racing content that gets thrown my way, but I couldn’t. It’s entirely possible to make a funny sitcom without relying on worn-out stereotypes or situating women as the enemy. It could have been so much better.