Geekly Speaking About… “Top Gear USA” Episode 1

From l to r: Adam Ferrara, Tanner Foust, and Rutledge Wood hope you'll enjoy the U.S. version of "Top Gear"

Thanks to some technical difficulties which were not present when we conducted our tech test about 1.5 hours before its premiere last night at 10:00 pm, we were unable to produce the audio for the live commentary between myself and Kara Dennison as we watched the first episode of the U.S. version of “Top Gear.”

Thankfully, there was nothing wrong with our fingers, and so just in the nick of time, we hied ourselves over to Google Chat to record our thoughts about the first episode of “Top Gear U.S.A.” on the History Channel:

10:05 PM Kara: Okay, here we go. Right … things I’m noticing to start.
TrishaLynn: And already I’ve got problems with this as well. You go first :)
10:07 PM Kara: One, their set is similar but smaller; two, they’re giving the same sort of talk as the original hosts do; three, they’re working on getting a similar level of cinematography going.
Kara: It looks like re: the ‘Challenges’ they’ve got the right idea.
TrishaLynn: The addition of the missile detection system system to this kind of challenge is a nice touch. And that Tanner Foust is cute, though.
Kara: I’m gonna say right now … I’m not coming in intending to hate this. Just skeptical. One thing I will say about the hosts is you can tell it’s gonna be a bit ’til they’re comfortable with each other. On the set, they looked like they were still working on how to talk to each other and the camera at the same time.
TrishaLynn: “We’re the only two dudes riding in a red convertible together right now” = That’s cute. I appreciate that they’re doing this in a live city.
Kara: Now, this sponsor message actually has to do with something I was talking with my family about over dinner. One of the reasons Jay Leno turned down the show.
TrishaLynn: Go forth and expound!
Kara: The Beeb gets its money via taxpayers; American TV via commercials. I think there’s a legitimate concern that this sort of thing could keep them from getting too critical of certain cars for fear of losing possible sponsors. That’s really gonna depend a lot on how ballsy the hosts and producers are. If they’re smart they’ll avoid running commercials from c…… oh, wait, the first ad out of the gate was for Mercedez-Benz.
10:15 PM TrishaLynn: What I love about original TG is that they do have the autonomy to say, “Screw you” if/when the auto manufacturers don’t comply.  Like in the drive from San Francisco, Calif.  to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Dodge didn’t want to provide a Challenger, so they just went out and bought one
10:16 PM Kara: For the record, there are other international Top Gears: Australia and Russia. So we aren’t the first. “We are going straight to hell, my friend.” “Just turn left here on Blasphemy Blvd.” Okay, that got a giggle.
TrishaLynn: I recall that there are other versions of Top Gear out there. And how are those guys doing on their shows? Still tops in their country? Do they have the same kind of sponsorship issues? And speeding in a cemetery? Not sure if even Jeremy Clarkson would do that.
Kara: Not sure about Russia, but the Australia one does have a fair following as I understand it. Not sure about their finances. Richard Hammond might do it, with that chasing him. Aaaand, there’s Ride of the Valkyries. Was wondering when they’d do that.
10:19 PM TrishaLynn: I recall reading somewhere that of the bloggers who got to see the first three eps, it appeared as if some of these were totally staged. Which would make sense with the cemetery run and the fact that we didn’t see any other car on the road while they did their thing.
Kara: I see a banner in the back, and that did look like the Stig. They say they’ll have their own masked racer. Hopefully they won’t call him the Stig.
A lot of people accuse the original of being staged, and I think they admitted to the caravan fire … the rest, I think people just sort of stand back and let them be at this point so there’s no need to stage them.
TrishaLynn: Yay for their “Stig” reveal…?
Kara: … Oops.
TrishaLynn: Heh. I do like how they show where he is on the track during these power laps.
Kara: That is nice, yes.
TrishaLynn: Their straight is nice. Nice bit of a drift round that last corner
Kara: Not bad.
10:23 PM TrishaLynn: So far, we like their improvement on how they broadcast the power laps.
Kara: Yes. That’s good from a technical standpoint. People who’ve been watching for a while (or have played Gran Turismo) know the TG track already, but I like having an overhead of the new track.
10:24 PM  TrishaLynn: And the improv’ed banter between the hosts could use work, but it’s good that they like each other. See, here’s my thing about TG UK and the BBC. The thing that works is that these guys were somewhat already known as presenters so seeing these guys talk about cars was good. I’m speaking of Clarkson, Hammond, and James May. Each of these guys are almost totally unknown.
Kara: Yeah. Though Hammond auditioned for TG.
10:26 PM TrishaLynn: Ah, see this is why I’m glad I have you as my TG historian :)
Kara: He’d been doing sparse work before then as a radio personality. Clarkson and May were both on the old format. Clarkson from 88-00, May in ’99
TrishaLynn: Hmm. Okay, I understand that. So do you think Leno would have been a better co-host?
10:27 PM Kara: I think it’s important for the hosts to have both a ‘presence’ and the geekery to go with it. Oh God. They’re using a Suzuki for the ‘Big Star, Small Car’ segment.
10:28 PM TrishaLynn: “You’re gonna wear a helmet”?  Heh….
10:29 PM Kara: These three look like they’re gonna be more of the ‘frat guy’ sort with each other. Will be interesting.
TrishaLynn: First guest is Buzz Aldrin. “You had a 51 Chevy?” “They weren’t that expensive in those days”. I like how they’re showing the pictures of the cars they owned.
10:31 PM Kara: Adam Ferrara is a far less aggressive interviewer than Clarkson, but that’s sort of like saying someone is less intimidating than Andre the Giant, so…
TrishaLynn: Ah… gearbox problems. So it’s not just a right-hand drive thing.
Kara: Absolutely not. Buzz Aldrin officially the fastest lap TG USA has had on their show.
10:33 PM TrishaLynn: Officially since he’s the first guest on their track. :)
Kara: So far, yes, I like the overhead of the track and the actual visual aids for the cars in the interview segment, like you said. I wonder if any of that will be taken into account for the UK show.
10:35 PM TrishaLynn: I don’t know. But it’s a good change.
10:36 PM Kara: I don’t think they’ll bother with the former, since most people watching know the hell out of their track. I’d sort of like the latter since, despite the fact that I enjoy looking at shiny cars, I cannot recall how most look offhand.
TrishaLynn: But back to Leno… who else do you think would be a good co-host for this show instead of these guys? Personally, I would like to have seen Adam Carolla and/or Jimmy Kimmel. Because of how awesome “The Man Show” was.
Kara: I think Adam Carolla was an early choice. Sadly, I am not as well-versed in what American sorts are car geeks. And I do think that’s important. Being one, or being willing to learn.
TrishaLynn: Nice fun cinematography here.
Kara: For those playing the home game, bullfighting with a Lamborghini.
10:38 PM TrishaLynn: Nice trivia bit there. Re: Names of Lamborghini cars versus bulls.
10:39 PM Kara: I know I got quiet, I’m just drooling over the pretty supercars.
Kara: “It’s like being aroused at gunpoint.”
TrishaLynn: Talk about being inappropriate… and ballsy
Kara: Their talk is a lot more straightforward, I think. In original TG, you get Clarkson coming in talking about cars being fueled by diced lions …
TrishaLynn: For a second there, I was thinking that the tone was entirely too fawning and not critical enough. But the metaphors are what make Clarkson’s car films so fun to watch!
Kara: Oh, they absolutely are. At the same time I’m glad they’re not trying to cast themselves in those three roles. Like, “Okay, you’ll be our Hammond” or some such.
TrishaLynn: Yes. I’m glad of that as well. But this means that Tanner Foust (who is a stunt driver) is also a bit of a pussy because he’s the one who wore a helmet when they took the Suzuki for a spin and the other guys did not.
10:43 PM Kara: I think of the three, Rutledge Wood seems to be most grounded (at least for now) in the spirit of the show.
10:44 PM TrishaLynn: Rutledge also feels like he’s the most “good ol’ boy”
Kara: The sensibility is very different. There’s this sort of ‘OH WOW CARS’ aspect to them.
10:45 PM TrishaLynn: Nice callback to the original metaphor.
Kara: At the 45 minute mark, my main impression: I feel equally informed but far less ‘drawn in.’
10:46 PM TrishaLynn: How much is that because … DRAG RACE!
Kara: The upcoming drag race might help. And here’s a preview for next episode…
TrishaLynn: Teaching a blind man to drift? AWESOME.
10:47 PM Kara: They certainly seem to be getting similar amounts of leeway to the original.
TrishaLynn: Meaning? Getting or giving?
Kara: If they can put a blind man behind the wheel, even in a controlled environment. And I’m talking safety-wise. So, okay, no one involved in production is particularly inhibited.
TrishaLynn: It’s safer for them to be critical of Lambos because they’re not sponsoring this episode.
10:49 PM Kara: True.
TrishaLynn: But yes, I do feel awesomely informed. And I think the problem we’re having is that because we are expecting or comparing the new show to the UK show, we’ve got problems with the beats. YEAH, DRAG RACE!
10:51 PM Kara: I’m gonna say, though, the people behind the UK show are why I started (and kept) watching.
TrishaLynn: I agree with you on that.
Kara: I DO like drag races, though.
TrishaLynn: Me, too. Wait… they’re not racing each other? I am less excited about this now.
Kara: This is individual times.
10:52 PM TrishaLynn: I like how Tanner can tell by the sound how he’s shifting. And I am totally forgetting the third guy’s name.
10:53 PM Kara: Adam? Or Rutledge?
TrishaLynn: Which goes to show how forgettable he is right now. Yes, Adam.
Kara: Given the fact that BBC America is running TG far closer to its initial airdate and releasing things (from series 10 onward) on DVD, I don’t think this is necessarily an attempt to oust/replace the original. Which I think is a lot of people’s major concern.
TrishaLynn: I agree with you on that.
Kara: And now we’re putting the comedian in the car. I trust the other two far more and am not entirely sure why he is here. “That shaking is near death.” But yeah … original TG is heavily pirated to the point that they actually worked it into their marketing this past series.
TrishaLynn: Did they?
Kara: “Back with episodes you’ve never seen before … Unless you’re a filthy Internet pirate!!!”
TrishaLynn: Heh!
Kara: I am a little unnerved by the fact that their Stig banner is animated. It keeps catching me unawares.
10:58 PM TrishaLynn: It is?
Kara: Yeah, he’ll move every once in a while.
TrishaLynn: I think I like their dynamic a bit. Chicane sounds too similar to Chicago. I love how the two regular guys (Rutledge and Adam) love busting on the professional driver. “It was so fast it changed colors!”
Kara: Yeah, they found their punching bag pretty quick. John Deere sports car. Ohhh dear. Or is that “Ohhhh, Deere.”
TrishaLynn: I would love to see that happen. Them turning a John Deere tractor into a super car or a racing car. That’s a great challenge idea.
11:01 PM TrishaLynn: Final thoughts?
Kara: Final thoughts … interesting guys (though Adam feels a little forgettable, I like Tanner and Rutledge), like some of the technical things they’ve done differently, I like that they’re starting out at least somewhat fearless, but there’s one thing that keeps nagging at me. Which is … why?
11:02 PM TrishaLynn: Why remake TG for the U.S.? Then you should also ask why did they do it for Australia and Russia.
Kara: I do.
TrishaLynn: Hah!
11:03 PM Kara: I understand that the auto industry is very different in different areas of the world.
TrishaLynn: In comments I’ve seen on other articles, people have said that they once thought the U.S. version of “The Office” would be terrible, and it actually wasn’t.
11:04 PM Kara: I can’t get behind the US or UK version of “The Office,” but I think that’s just because I can’t get behind office humor in the first place. I do know it’s done rather well, and even people leery of remakes like it.
TrishaLynn: “Sanford and Son” was also based on a British TV show.
11:05 PM Kara: Sadly, the good remakes are so few and far between. When they’re good, they’re amazing. When they’re bad …
TrishaLynn: And if we’re asking why does a franchise allow itself to be remade for a different country, I think the answer is so that it can be more easily understood in the target country. What I don’t think people who are proponents for localization understand is that what makes it popular in the foreign country is that it is different from what they’re used to.
Kara: TG has a very British sensibility to it. A lot of the things we remake over here thrive on that sensibility, and I think things like “The Office” weren’t so reliant at their core on that. And that’s how you can tell if something’s gonna fly or not.
TrishaLynn: I remember when I was working at a media database company and was working on Geneon’s DVD releases of eps from a Japanese car show. They were just subtitled, but reading the synopses of these shows were just so interesting to me. And I can imagine a show like that celebrating the Japanese car culture and just Japanese culture in its own way and if I could remember what those DVDs were called, I’d watch the shite out of them.
Kara: Sounds actually like something I need to start looking for, as well. The idea is interesting. When I was first sat down to watch TG, it wasn’t “Here’s a car show,” it was “Here’s three crazy middle-aged British guys doing a car show.” Nothing to say the TG producers can’t expand their media empire. I think it’s just going to attract a different demographic entirely.
TrishaLynn: I totally agree with you. Thinking about who this show is for, it’s not for the original TG fan.
Kara: Thing is, it’s really hard to tell who they think it’s for.
TrishaLynn: Explain?
Kara: I’m not sure I can because I’m still turning over all the elements in my brain … best I can describe it… On the surface it’s very much like the original. It’s going with the format Clarkson pitched to the BBC in 2002. They even shoot it the same. But it’s hard to tell if that’s meant to attract people who like the original, or if it’s just transposing a formula that works to a different audience.
TrishaLynn: Hmm. Interesting thought.
Kara: Like … have they put out this shiny thing for me or for someone else? BBC aren’t dumb. Usually.
TrishaLynn: And who knows, maybe once these guys get into a groove, we’ll like them more?
Kara: Maybe.
11:16 PM TrishaLynn: Because has the U.S. ever put out a show about cars that has lasted long? Maybe that’s what they’re trying to do?
Kara: Maybe. The original TG — by which I mean the original format going back to ’77 — stuck around for a good long while. I’m not sure we have an equivalent in U.S. car shows.
11:17 PM TrishaLynn: You know, for having such a car culture in so many parts of this country, we haven’t had any TV shows about cars. Which aren’t about the cars themselves. “Speed Racer” does not count. 1) Because it was orignally Japanese and 2) Because it’s about drivers.
Kara: I know someone who could put us right if we’re wrong, but sadly he is unavailable. I’m sure we’ll hear in the comments if there’s one we’re missing.
11:18 PM TrishaLynn: “M.A.S.K.” doesn’t count. “Transformers” doesn’t count.
Kara: Aw.
TrishaLynn: Well they transform into “not cars”! They don’t count.
11:19 PM Kara: TG in the UK actually has a competitor — “Fifth Gear” — so they’re still ahead.
TrishaLynn: (Although “M.A.S.K.” was a hella awesome show). We do have magazines about cars. So why hasn’t Car & Driver done their own show?
Kara: Excellent question.
TrishaLynn: And the Japanese show I mentioned was also done magazine format.
Kara: That was the original TG format. It was just one person doing car news and reviews. Well, initially one.
TrishaLynn: Because why mess with a format that works?
Kara: Well, back before ’02 it was much more straightforward.
TrishaLynn: So I’ve heard.
Kara: Very basic news, reviews, occasionally an outing to a car show.
TrishaLynn: I can see why that format won’t work anymore.
Kara: Clarkson’s the one who started stirring that up in ’88.Because he came in and … er … was himself … and the ratings went through the roof.
TrishaLynn: And the Japanese show was based on a magazine, that’s what I meant by its format. But it had crazy-awesome stuff like we see in Clarkson’s re-imagining.
Kara: Yeah, the spectacle.
11:22 PM TrishaLynn: Yes, the spectacle.
Kara: And how just straight-up ludicrous some of it is. And by “some,” I mean most.
11:23 PM Kara: So the questions become: Can we do that here? 2. If we can’t, should we bother, or should we just do our car show and let the boys on the home front keep blowing up caravans for themselves? I don’t think the existence of a US version really threatens the livelihood of the UK one in any way. Which sounds obvious, but I think that can be a knee-jerk reaction. Especially considering a lot of UK-to-US remakes really DO muck things up by way of international distribution.
TrishaLynn: I think the success of this show will eventually rely on several things happening: 1) That people will enjoy watching the three hosts have fun with cars. 2) That they will find their own “new thing” which will differentiate their TG from the original TG. 3) That they can and will have the balls to call an American car rubbish.
11:26 PM Kara: 3 is a big one.
TrishaLynn: 4) That Americans can accept that it’s okay to enjoy and love cars but to still be responsible about the environment at the same time.
11:27 PM Kara: I do note that there’s not been a marketing push to attract fans of the original.
11:30 PM Kara: And yeah … there are people out there who just plain aren’t Anglophiles. The opposite, in fact.
TrishaLynn: Those people are kinda weird. :)
Kara: Ha!
11:31 PM TrishaLynn: So in other words…. reserving judgment? Cautiously okay?
Kara: I’m trying very hard to.
TrishaLynn: Giving them a shot?
Kara: While reminding myself that I am not their target audience.
TrishaLynn: Noted.
Kara: I’m gonna do my three-episode rule here, I think.
TrishaLynn: Alright… back in a week then? And this time we’ll try to actually coordinate audio again?
11:32 PM Kara: That’d be pretty cool.

Tune in next week, and we hope to have the technical difficulties with an audio commentary ironed out by then.

5 thoughts on “Geekly Speaking About… “Top Gear USA” Episode 1”

  1. Car and Driver, Motor Trend and Road and Track have all had shows on American TV with varying success. Nothing as good as TG. More cut and dry informative shows without a lot of critizisim. More of a showcase and some tips on how to care for your cars or go looking for classic car pieces, which I guess is bigger in America than anywhere else.
    I would have liked to be part of this discussion though…..

  2. Just a bit of FYI: Chicane is an actual racing term. It’s a bend in the road meant to cause the drivers to slow down.

    But I really liked this review. You guys went in with an objective mind and weren’t just, “Oh my god! Do Americans have to destroy everything British?”

    Cool stuff, guys.

    1. I wondering if the reason why the original TG call that bend “Chicago” is after this racing term? And thanks for the comment.

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