When someone discusses car culture and the obsession with the automobile, the United States of America is almost always mentioned. After all, we've got Detroit, NASCAR, Route 66, and most of the major motor vehicle mythos. So it is surprising - shocking, actually - to see how sensational something like Top Gear celebrates the colony's affinity for four fuel injected wheels. A long standing product of Great Britain, the show currently features the fine hosting skills of grumpy columnist Jeremy Clarkson, twee TV presenter Richard Hammond, and cautious 'Captain Slow' himself, James May. As much a spit on as a sonnet to the lap of combustion engine luxury, the hour long TV extravaganza is as much about personality as it is raw brake horsepower. The trio of hosts are a humorous collection of anxieties and in-jokes, each one desperate to best the other. This makes even the most meaningless discussion of car facts a fascinating, hilarious journey into the grease monkey unknown.
Top Gear is one of the UK's longest running shows. It started off in 1977 as a simple half-hour basic car news magazine format. In the 1990s, presenter Jeremy Clarkson suggested a more entertaining revamp, and the resulting program has become a huge hit. A standard episode of this Top Gear 2.0 usually begins with an automobile review/profile. Then the car is handed over to the team's tame racing driver, a shadowing anonymous figure known only as The Stig. There is usually some joke surrounding his arrival ("some say, he has no nipples...") and then the vehicle is timed around the show's track. Then, there is the news segment (always tongue in cheek) followed by another spotlight, and then the main feature begins.
Almost every installment of Top Gear has a competition--between Jeremy and the others, between Richard in a car and some guy climbing a mountain, between James and a bullet train--and the results are spread out over the course of the rest of the hour. Add in a sequence where a "star" (Helen Mirren, Simon Cowell) is placed in the show's reasonable priced car. After a jovial sit down Q&A, they race around the track and their times are compared to those of other "stars."
As with most British TV, Season 14 is comprised of seven shows, since there is a South American special included. Here is a brief overview of what is offered on each installment:
Episode 1: The following cars are reviewed - BMW 760Li, Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG, Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 Spyder, Ferrari California, Aston Martin DBS Volante, Dacia Sandero / Feature Challenge: a trip to Romania to find the greatest road in all of Europe / Eric Bana is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 2: Reviews: Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1 vs. Audi R8 V10, Hammerhead i-Eagle Thrust/ Feature Race: Homemade electric car challenge / Michael Sheen is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 3: Review: Hawk HF3000, Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2 Valentino Balboni/ Feature Challenge: James May attempts to fly an airship caravan, while Richard and Jeremy discuss the cars made by Lancia/ Chris Evans is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 4: Reviews: BMW X5 M, Audi Q7 V12, Range Rover (2010MY), Renault Twingo 133/ Feature Race: The Fastest Airport Vehicle, Jeremy tests the aforementioned Twingo / Guy Ritchie is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 5: Review: Noble M600/ Feature Challenge: Cars as art / Jenson Button is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 6: Bolivia Special.
Episode 7: Reviews: Lexus LFA, BMW X6, Vauxhall Insignia VXR/ Feature Challenge: Road Signs, the Top Gear Awards for 2009 / Seasick Steve is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Leave it to the British to find a way of making even the most mundane of subjects outrageously entertaining. Only the English could turn an afternoon's gardening into something as superb as Ground Force, or DIY interior decorating into a cheeky competition ala Changing Rooms. But who thought non-gear heads could love a TV series about high end luxury supercars? Would anyone except the most dedicated follower of camshaft fashion even care if Ferrari tweaked its flap paddle gearbox or if BMW continues to sell the same old models under new modern (overpriced) names? If you're a lover of fun, inventive programming, you do because the BBC have Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May to guide the uninitiated and the gonzo mechanic through a full hour of Top Gear once a week. Now available on DVD/Blu-ray in single series (season) sets, even the most clueless combustion engine novice can marvel at men humorously enjoying speed, performance, and POOOOOOOWWEEEEEEERRR!
You don't have to love cars to love Top Gear. While it might help (and Lord knows the show does more than its fair share to cater to the V8 geek), this is, again, a program more about personality than petrol. Over the course of its seemingly endless run, the producers have found the perfect combination of classic British clip (May), post-millennial UK jive (Hammond) and grumpy old man (Clarkson) to run their six cylinder circus. How these three interact and play off each other is one of Top Gear's many pleasures. They love to mock and play jokes on each other in a combination of one-upmanship and begrudging professional respect. On the other hand, they never allow cheek to get in the way of information. If you love high priced, top of the line motor cars, Top Gear is your crack. These men get to drive and describe the best, from £40,000 sedans to £400,000 handmade masterworks. They are brutally honest ("the steering is rubbish") and have been known to gush from time to time ("brilliant" and "epic" being some favorite fawning adjectives). If you want to know what's happening on the international car scene, Top Gear's got you covered.
Season 14 finds a wonderful balance between the specific and the silly. There is nothing better than watching three relative incompetents design an electric vehicle, and then watch it fail in the middle of rush hour traffic. Even better is James May shouting for help as his airship caravan starts to veer off course. Something like the 'Cars as Art' or 'Airport Vehicle Challenge' is a little obvious, but on the other hand, the sheer scope of something like the Bolivia Special marks why Top Gear is such a sensational show. It's like the first episodes trip to Romania. While there is definitely a bit of the old "stranger in a strange land" conceit, Top Gear never talks down to its destinations. Instead, it makes the hosts into the harlequins, turning their frequent discomfort and cluelessness into clear comic gold. Equally fascinating is the Stars in the Reasonably Priced Cars segment. Where else can you see a sunny Eric Bana or a serious Guy Ritchie loosen up and talk about their love of the automobile. Even better, a few are quite fast around the old racing track. Sure, most of each episode focuses on the finer points of the latest billionaire boys' toy, but after that, Top Gear is just another amazing example of UK entertainment ingenuity.
With Season 14 being the first to film (mostly) in High Definition, the Blu-ray release of Top Gear definitely benefits from the format upgrade. Sure, some of the filmed segments are still dragging behind a bit, visually, and we do get some technical flaws like shimmer and artifacting. Still, the 1080i/AVC-encode often looks life like, down to the crevices creeping across Clarkson's face or the dark circle underscoring Richard's elfin eyes. The interior shots are bright and colorful, with a significant amount of detail. The exterior moments are a mixed bag. The Romania material is breathtaking. The Bolivia trip...not so much. Still, considering its subject matter, this is the best looking car show around.
Here is where the Top Gear Blu-ray loses points. Perhaps there is no need for a lossless HD upgrade to the audio, but surely the presentation can do better than a weak-willed Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. It's like buying a Bose speaker system and then putting your Close-N-Play through it. The updated format just begs for something a bit more spacious and roomy. Instead, things stay pretty much front and center, conversations easy to hear and the unusual musical backdrops selected represented in fine, if sometimes flat, mixes.
Here is where the Blu-ray format really pays off. You get six episodes of the show here, the Bolivia special, the Polar Special (a car trip to magnetic North), a commentary on the aforementioned South American jaunt, a collection of celebrity laps, and a series of featurettes which give us a brief (seven minutes total) look at the show. Spread out over three discs, it's a nice package.
Top Gear is the kind of show that could change a non-car nut into a stark raving automobile loon. While it's clear that many in the viewership would never be able to afford one of the many magical mystery machines highlighted, it's always fun to live vicariously through Clarkson, Hammond and May. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, this is a pristine example of what English TV programmers do best. They find subjects of limited or narrow interest and then turn them into universal statements of fun. Sure, the United States may be the Kings of Car Culture, but thanks to terrific 'vehicles' like Top Gear, the rest of the world is fast (very fast) catching up.
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