Monday, November 22, 2010

Why Top Gear USA Is All That*…

[* as long as "All That" means "not so much"]

Having sat through two viewings of the long-awaited Stateside version of Top Gear, I can now bring forth everything that’s right with the new show: The test track map is shown in a lower corner of the screen while a vehicle (be it a Viper ACR or a Suzuki SX4) is on the circuit. It’s an idea that’s been around in countless video games for the better part of the last 20 years, and now it’s part of Top Gear. No longer will new viewers have to watch and wonder “gee, what part of the track is that car rounding,” because The Map brings the detail to you in hi-def.

Once we’re past The Map, however, the innovation drops off and we’re left with three talentless bores who clearly think they’re funny, and spend the entire hour trying to convince the audience just how funny they think they are.

First up: For noted Speed Channel NASCAR guy Rutledge Wood, the toughest hurdle was obviously making it through more than 15 minutes without sharing just how funny it is when his baby poops. Wood is a consummate pro, however, and instead shows off his most brilliant skill: Wearing a plaid button-down shirt, which clashes with everything else in sight. This is a work of sheer genius, as it comes close at times to distracting viewers from the most awful visual on the show: His head. Rutledge Wood’s head, while clearly the largest air-filled object inside the empty hangar on which TG US is shot, is also the most annoying and least useful. Cheers to the disgraceful plaid shirt for doing its best to tear our eyes away from it.

While Wood spends most of the episode fighting back the urge to tell baby poop jokes (no, really, read any interview with him since he went to work at Speed), Tanner Foust wastes no time in showing the viewer that he was born to be on Top Gear… as the Stig. Anyone who’s seen Foust on his own show, Speed’s “Supercars Exposed,” is well-acquainted with his trademark delivery – droning, vanilla, monotone, juvenile. While he is certainly a skilled driver (“you’re the Brian Boitano of drifting,” quipped a co-host), his abundance of skill is entirely concentrated on the wheel, gearshift, and pedals.

Or flappy-paddles, as the case may be.

Once he opens his mouth, however, the party is over. Maybe his agent – if he has one – objected to Foust being cast in a role with anonymous ID and no spoken lines. Maybe Foust himself is convinced he’s just dazzling on-camera. No doubt, someone’s told him this at some point, because he keeps showing up. But when Foust begins to speak, all that seems to come out is the wince-worthy whining of the kid whose daddy had all the money, bought all the cool cars, and let him drive them to school. People like him because he’s attached to something cool; not because the cool extends to him.

I hate to say this, because I’m certain Tanner Foust is a really fantastic guy. I bet he’s very smart, probably polite, maybe even helps the neighbor lady take out her garbage on Tuesdays… But on-screen, he’s the privileged brat kid you’d love to beat up – if you weren’t so busy staring at his dad’s Lambo.

The oddball in the trio (yes, I’m reaching with that term) is Adam Ferrara. While arguably less outright annoying than Wood or Foust, he’s clearly the one with the best on-screen presence – an asset that comes through quite clearly as he powers a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera at breakneck speed… in a straight line out in the desert.

When the producers set out to create an Americanized Top Gear, they first took a look at Nielsen Ratings and decided to eliminate “things Americans don’t care for.” Clever writing was at the top of the kill-it list, as Top 20 ratings routinely show that American audiences have no stomach for witty banter or intelligent themes. Thus, there is no News segment, and instead of “A Star In A Reasonably-Priced Car,” we get the much easier to understand “Big Star, Small Car.”

Apollo 11 astronaut and great American historical figure Buzz Aldrin, the second human who ever set foot on the moon, was the first to have a go at the test track. Yes, he certainly was.

The test track itself seems to have very little of the impressive sight-lines (nor the parked Boeing 747) of the original show's Lotus-engineered circuit, though it does boast a substantial number of curves in varying radii and directions. The “small car” (called such because ‘reasonably priced’ must be a negative connotation to those of us in the Colonies) takes to these curves… well, like a small car. At least it's not some electric/hybrid glorified golf cart.

Final Analysis: This was a premiere. Few shows ever peak on their first night out, and it’s clear that there’s enormous room for improvement and refinement in Top Gear USA. It would be silly to permanently write-off a show with such a huge potential audience, desperate for a real-deal homegrown US-based car program, and this one may yet show some promise.

Sure, the camera work and editing was nothing like what fans of Top Gear have come to expect over the years, but that’s excusable. Any fan of the original show can look past that, for a week or two.

And yes, the music was ill-scored and ill-timed (the drum sequence from The Doors’ “The End” used to introduce a 2008 Dodge Viper SRT-10? S’cuse?), but any producer worth his salt can make the show sound better.

The hosts share about as much natural charisma as the used tires that make up the barriers on the test track, but nothing a little re-casting can’t fix. (Free hint to the producers: Put a helmet and white firesuit on Tanner, and park him where he belongs.)

Top Gear USA is, to be honest, a show that brings much promise: The promise that many Americans want to like it, will probably swallow hard and say “it’s not that bad,” and then check the calendar to see when the REAL Top Gear returns (that’s some time in January 2011).

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