Watch it if you must, and if you haven’t already: this is “Top Gear USA”. The three people involved are:
* Rutledge Wood, a television personality best described as “professional douchebag”;
* Adam Ferrara, stand-up comedian and character actor;
* Tanner Foust, a fanatically self-motivated and successful individual who has made a name for himself participating in a variety of low-talent driving events such as X-Games Rally and “Formula D”.
Even if you don’t watch the trailer, you should be able to figure out that this series will be an absolute train wreck. With that said, the original Top Gear has never exactly been compelling television, yet it’s found a worldwide audience. The USA version won’t, and here’s why…
The English didn’t invent the idea of a TV show about cars, any more than the Japanese invented the basic ideas behind the Honda Civic. We’ve had American TV shows about cars for decades, and they’ve all been unwatchable garbage. “Motorweek”, with its endless pans of Toyota Camrys doing five under the speed limit on rural two-lane roads, is a perfect example. I double-dog-dare you to get through an episode of Motorweek without picking up a book, checking Twitter, or changing the channel. It’s unbelievably bad.
The original Top Gear succeeded in the UK because it had no competition and because it was on one of the default-choice BBC channels. Motorists in the UK, as a group, are an endangered, persecuted species, endlessly taxed, regulated, and humiliated by everything from a national network of speed cameras to a Byzantine inspection process which fails perfect-condition Jag XJSes off the road because the handbrake doesn’t work better than it did when the car was new. Driving in the UK sucks. It’s much easier to watch a show about driving, so Top Gear became a success.
Add in a sprinkling of the usual fawning British celebrity culture, and there was no stopping it. If you think the American celebrity culture promotes idiots to fame, you will be flabbergasted by the Brits; Google people like “Katie Price” or “Jade Goody” to find out what our oh-so-sophisticated cultural betters like to do with their time. “Jezza” Clarkson almost seems like a reasonable individual compared to some of these folks.
As with their compatriots in print journalism, American video autojournalists set the bar so low that this relatively flaccid English product had no trouble high-stepping over it. Unlike Motorweek, Top Gear at least showed the occasional spinning tire or racetrack action. The hosts appeared to be living people, not cadavers bolted to a stake and shocked into speaking by repeated electrical stimulation. It’s not great stuff, but it’s better than what we got here.
Naturally, the “Mr. Euros” of the world loved the snob value that came from watching a British TV show. (These people were apparently all too young to have seen Fawlty Towers.) Watching TG became a must-have status badge in the world of Internet car forums and “Cars and Coffee” circle-jerks. This is amply demonstrated by the fact that the anti-American episodes of the show are usually some of the most popular and most discussed episodes with American audiences. The folks who watch TG here consider themselves to be better people than the “Amurricans” lampooned on the show.
The final inspired addition to TG was “The Stig”. I’m continually surprised at just how impressed non-racers are with this person and the glorified-autocross “test track” he uses. When we lampooned him at Speed:Sport:Life by having me put on a mirrored helmet and present myself as “Mr. Roboto”, we got some nasty, threatening emails from it. Even if TG itself doesn’t take The Stig seriously, the viewers sure do.
For the record, the whole “Stig” deal is a joke. The race course is a joke. The vastly differing weather conditions are a joke. If you think that “fast lap” times mean anything on that show, you are mistaken. It’s all about entertainment, plain and simple.
Can an American version of this English show succeed? Of course not. It’s missing the three crucial factors that made the UK one work. It will not have a large audience as the original show did, it will not benefit from American celebrity culture due to the complete and utter nonentity status of all three hosts, and it won’t benefit from the snob appeal of being an overseas product. I promise you that the vast majority of potential viewers will simply continue to watch the original. Why would they switch?
If an American show about automobiles is to succeed, it has to be American. It should incorporate all the American automotive and racing traditions, from quarter-mile circle tracks to rallycross. It should provide accurate, fair information and have hosts with both crowd appeal and respectable resumes. Top Gear USA fails on all counts, and it will fail anyway for the simple fault of not being British.
If any of you watch the premiere when it comes out, feel free to let me know your thoughts. I won’t bother; I’ll be out driving. For that matter, you should be, too.