If you told someone the premise to the fabulous UK reality series Top Gear, they'd think you were daft. Three guys, a couple looking a little long in the TV tooth, take a weekly look at the greatest cars in the world, driving them around a makeshift airfield track while commenting on their pros and cons. All the while, upbeat ambient and house music meanders in the background, and then the vehicle is timed and compared to others featured before. Then there's a bit of news, a regular feature (or two) and then a celebrity steps out and does a timed lap as well. The show sprinkles in a few jokes and oddball one-liners, and then a "bombshell" is dropped as one of the hosts waves us off. From that outline alone, a weeklong marathon of TruTV's appalling Operation: Repo would seem like gift from the Gods. But leave it to the British to find a way of literally reinventing the wheel. By using a patented method of applying personality on top of horsepower, the sublime English series finds a way to make even the most mechanically complicated concept a comedic joy. It's one of the best shows on television, fuel injected or not.
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 15 is comprised of six shows. Here is a brief overview of what is offered on each installment:
Episode 1: The following cars are reviewed - Bentley Continental Supersports, Reliant Robin / Feature Challenge: James vs. the Toyota Hilux Invincible, Jeremy vs. the Reliant Robin/ Nick Robinson, Al Murray, Peter Jones, Peta 23 from Essex, Johnny Vaughan, Bill Bailey, Louie Spence, Amy Williams are the Stars in the NEW Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 2: Reviews: Porsche 911 Sport Classic, Porsche Boxster Spyder/ Feature Race: Second hand sports saloons for under £5,000 / Alastair Campbell is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 3: Review: Chevrolet Camaro SS vs. Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG/ Feature Challenge: Greatest four door supercar - wedding day challenge/ Rupert Grint is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 4: Reviews: Audi R8 V10 Spyder vs. Porsche 997 Turbo Cabriolet/ Feature Race: Homemade supercar caravans / Andy García is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 5: Review: Volkswagen Touareg, Bugatti Veyron Super Sport/ Feature Challenge: Richard and the Volkswagen Touareg vs. snowmobilers, James tries to break a world record/ Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz are the Stars in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 7: Reviews: Ferrari 458 Italia/ Feature Challenge: Old British roadsters for under £5,000 / Jeff Goldblum is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Talk about your star power. Top Gear Season 15 might be best remembered as the series when Clarkson tried to turn a sportscar into a three story caravan or when James actually went faster than most human beings on the planet ever did, but many in the audience had to be wowed when someone like Tom Cruise or Cameron Diaz walked onto the communal soundstage. These are international A-listers, and instead of doing the typical three-minute clip fest puff piece, these icons sit down and shoot the Shell with Clarkson and the gang. From the celebrity filled intro to the new Reasonably Priced car, to the moment Jeff Goldblum tries to turn a simple racing lap into a existential experience, this latest season sees the show rising in profile and professional mantle. It's one thing to have local UK names gracing your stage. When you can snag Mr. Top Gun and the Mary that there's something about, you know you've entered the bigs.
This is not to say that Top Gear sacrifices what it does best to get big named butts in their seats. Indeed, the show's sensational set-up allows for all manner of automotive based buffoonery. The wedding day challenge is particularly funny, since Clarkson and May prove to be the worst chauffeurs in the history of the profession. Similarly, watching the three wheeled Reliant Robin make an ass out of the angry old man is a joy to behold. On the other hand, the old British roadsters piece is a nice bit of melancholy nostalgia. As the men whip around to the sites of various UK factories (now closed and decaying), they seem to embody the entire dead empire theme perfectly. While the guys can frequently play the fool specifically for the camera (did they really think their recreation vehicle designs were that practical?) and can confuse a consumer with their refined fence sitting (they can love and hate and loathe and want to buy a car all in the same sentence), their devotion to all things drivable is more than commendable.
Yanks beware, however. Top Gear--it really dislikes America. No, not the country or its people or its roadways or its syndication deals. No, it HATES American cars. Hammond owns an amped up Mustang and he is endlessly--ENDLESSLY- mocked for it. From bad gas mileage to constant breakdowns and repairs, you'd swear the United States has never made a decent automobile (and Top Gear would probably agree). This is a very Eurocentric show, catering to vehicles and variety types that are sometimes exclusive to the continent. While Clarkson and the crew complain about these foreign facets as well (like having to have your racer reversed engineered as to not go over a specific set MPH), they so offer some intriguing insight into life across the pond. It will still feel "foreign" to most, but it makes for good TV. Indeed, if you simply sit back and let the beaming buoyancy of the hosts wash over you, however, all of the befuddling, bumbling bureaucracy and English eccentricity won't really matter.
Season 15 continues the switchover to High Definition, with the Blu-ray release of Top Gear definitely benefiting from the overall upgrade. Sure, most of the filmed segments are still lagging behind a bit, visually, and we do get flaws like aliasing, shimmer and artifacting. Still, the 1080i/AVC-encode often looks totally realistic and life-like, down to the crevices creeping across Clarkson's face or the dark circle underscoring Richard's mischievous eyes. The interior shots are clean and colorful, with a significant amount of detail. The exterior moments are a mixed bag. Depending on the location (and the directorial approach to the segment), the sections can be brilliant - or baffling.
Again, this Top Gear Blu-ray loses some significant points in the sound department. Perhaps no one wanted or thought we needed a lossless HD upgrade to the audio, but this is still one presentation that can do better than a simple, spineless Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. It's like buying a Bose speaker system and then putting your scratched collection of Disney Sing-a-long 45s through it. The updated format just begs for something a bit more spacious and atmospheric. Instead, things stay pretty much front and center, conversations easy to hear and the unusual musical backdrops selected represented in fine, if sometimes flat, offerings.
Sadly, there are no Specials included here. No commentary tracks either. Just 14 minutes worth of mini-featurettes, 16 minutes of celebrity laps, a 29 minute look at James May's morning commute, and a collection of outtakes. That's all.
As BBC America airs the 16th series of Top Gear (including trips to Albania and Norway), it's fun to look back at previous seasons of this snarky UK car show. It definitely delivers the goods when it comes to information and critical consumer breakdowns. It features fabulous looking, futuristic vehicles and the hosts are genial, jovial blokes who know they're damn lucky to be indulging in their favorite fuel-injected pastime. And for all its slick and highly-produced polish, this is a down to Earth and quite funny show. Easily earning a Highly Recommend rating, the British prove that they can make Masterpiece Theater out of machines, manifolds, and MPH. Top Gear is terrific, and that's no tame traction control.
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