I feel slightly embarrassed that, as the son of a British ex-patriate that I wasn't on the Top Gear bandwagon from the start, advocating that people should be watching it as much as possible. While I remember surfing past an occasional episode on PBS on Saturday afternoon several years ago, I really hadn't been watching it until six months ago, when visiting my brother, who wanted to show off his new house and what he'd been recording on DVR. And now, I can't stop watching any episode which might come on (which now, is on the BBC America channel).
For those unfamiliar with the concept behind Top Gear, it's a fairly straightforward one. It's a show which originally aired in and is set around Britain, and whose primary motivation is about reviewing cars. Big ones, small ones, commuter ones and sports ones. Of the three hosts who are on the show, the longest-serving one has been Jeremy Clarkson, a journalist before assuming his role on the show way back in 1988. Over the last several years, he's been joined by Richard Hammond (in 2002) and fellow journalist James May (in 2003). Before Hammond and May joined the show though, it was struggling in the ratings, and Clarkson's ideas to revamp the show included extending it to an hour-long show, and with Hammond and May, there was more on an entertaining, nay, humorous bend to the show. While it was a gradual road to acceptance, the show's format has been adopted in other countries, and is a smash hit on British television, with eyes to a growing audience in America. Now on first glance, an hour-long show about some dry-witted Brits driving cars around a test track that once was a World War II airstrip would seem abhorrent and grating. The televised equivalent of watching paint dry, or insects copulate. But the show clicks in a way that not only manages to break it out of its perceived view, but gains almost universal acceptance by anybody who watches it. There are several reasons for this, but let me try to break them down, in no random order:
The chemistry of the stars. First off, each of the three has different personalities. Clarkson is the guy who loves driving fast, but also respects the craftsmanship put into an automobile, whether it's a Honda or a Lamborghini. Hammond is the shortest of the trio (May flirts with six feet and Clarkson is 6 foot 5), and for that physical reason, he seems to fit into the role of mischievous younger brother to a certain degree. He also loves driving various cars, with an eye towards the fast one here and there. May is a little different. While Clarkson and Hammond enjoy the thrill of speed, May takes a more refined stance, if you will. He admires the work put into a car for the sake of the overall pleasure in a driving experience. He looks at it as more of an all-encompassing experience, whereas the latter enjoy the visceral feel of speed (which, admittedly, is fun to watch). Put them together, and they won't hesitate to bump each other in races, pull pranks on one another, and make jokes at someone else's automotive troubles. It's because of them that many times, you don't see yourself watching an automotive show, you're watching three guys do incredible stunts, which leads me to the next item:
The allure of what these guys get to do, on and off the test track. When on the track, they get to drive anything from Minis to Subarus to Formula 1 cars, Aston Martins and Ferraris. But moreover, past what they get to do in controlled circumstances is what they're allowed to do off the track. In the show's tenth season (or Series, as the Brits call it), the trio get to try and find the most enjoyable driving road in Europe, going to Italy, Switzerland and Luxembourg. Hammond races a Bugatti against a military fighter jet. They go to Spain to find out which car is the best among a Mercedes, BMW or Audi. And the stunts which require them to scour for the best cheap car are fun, and maybe even funnier, than the others. The hosts most cross an African desert without the use of a four-wheel drive vehicle costing more than $2,000. Another episode finds themselves going through London in the four various modes of transportation (bike, car, public transport and boat). The stunts are challenging, and they have a fun time in doing them, and that fun translates over to the viewer.
You forget sometimes that it's a show about cars. Along with the "cheap" car challenges, frequently a segment on the show airs called "Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car," where the best and brightest of British entertainment go behind the wheel of a Suzuki to test their driving mettle. Season Ten sees an Oscar winner (Dame Helen Mirren), a Rolling Stone (Ronnie Wood) and a recent Doctor Who (David Tennant). Oh, and a certain abrasive American Idol judge you might know. The star factor and fun makes you forget what the concept of the show is. My wife would never watch a show about cars. She'd watch one where James Blunt drives a Suzuki while (later in the episode) a remote-controlled radio operated Renault beats a Ford Mustang in a drag race. Which leads me to my final item:
There's still plenty of action for the gear heads. Simply put, the sheer number of cars displayed in this Series whose price tag exceeds a quarter million dollars is staggering. Cars that have engines that are bigger than household appliances. Cars that, if given the chance, I would sell my family to drive. And I'm not a car enthusiast. The only time I've ever looked at an auto magazine would be to wait for my oil to get changed. And yet I come away from Series 10 of Top Gear knowing more about carbon-fiber components and brake horsepower than I ever thought I'd learn, so it's both entertaining and informative.
The pros are so good, that even mentioning the cons seems blasphemous, but I feel I should do it. Sometimes, the hosts mention some intangible related to driving that seems bewildering to me. One particular Ferrari isn't as good as an older model, but for emotional reasons which seem illogical. On many occasions, the middle third of the show (with the celebrity segment) goes on a little long, and requires some fast-forwarding to get through. Other than that, the show has the "the one with..." factor that few shows seem to achieve. What's more is that that statement can be filled different ways by different tastes. It can be the one where Simon Cowell tries to break the lap record, or where the hosts try to convert three cars to amphibious mode, crossing the English channel. It's things like these, and the others I've mentioned above that make Top Gear appointment viewing in my household.
Most of the episodes in the first season are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen to coincide with their original broadcast format, but the first episode has a segment that appears to be filmed in 2.35:1. These are straightforward accurate replications of the BBC America broadcasts, with not a lot of edge enhancement or noise issues that can be easily discerned. There's a lot of post-production work done to the driving segments, so it's hard to get a complete barometer of what's there, but the discs help make the show good decent enough.
Dolby Digital 2.0 audio here. I can't say I'm surprised, as it is a television program after all, but there's a lot of music and ambient sound available that a high definition presentation of some sort has got to be in this show's future. As it stands, the show's audio holds up well, with an occasional use of subtitles to pick up on Brit slang every now and then.
Nothing? No interviews, no extra footage, no commentaries? Well, I guess when you're talking about a show whose hosts admire cars with minimal creature comforts, supplements are a little verboten, but it would have been nice to have something here.
Some say that by releasing the Top Gear show on DVD in America that it's a long overdue welcome. And that by releasing it without any extras that no one will want to buy it. All I know is that the material is excellent, worthy of repeat viewing, and strongly encouraged for anyone who's a fan of entertaining television. Including the Stig.