Long-running BBC series Top Gear is a great show that combines exotic cars, foreign locales, beautiful photography, interesting challenges and charismatic hosts. As much as I would like to review Top Gear US: The Complete First Season without comparison to its British counterpart, I think that would be too steep a task. Simply put, the US version of Top Gear is an inferior product, but, once it reaches its stride, the series is compulsively watchable. Sure, the hosts are bland and the challenges are nowhere near as elaborate as those in the British version, but Top Gear US: The Complete First Season is a decent start for the series.
The British version of Top Gear began in 1977 and was revived in 2002 after an extended hiatus with a fresh format and hosts Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond, with James May joining the next year. As I made clear in my review for season 13, Top Gear is one of my favorite shows, so the US version had big shoes to fill. America loves to import and remix British programming to mixed results - compare the success of The Office with that of Coupling. The producers don't go too crazy here, and the show's format remains mostly the same. There are challenges, guest interviews, an American Stig and even a "Big Star, Small Car" segment. There are also three male hosts: actor/comedian Adam Ferrara, professional racing driver Tanner Foust and racing analyst Rutledge Wood.
After I watched the first couple of episodes of Top Gear US, I almost wrote the series off completely, as these episodes are awkward. The hosts have zero charisma in these early episodes, and each looks lost on stage. Clarkson, Hammond and May comprise a team that cannot be matched, but BBC Worldwide and History should have added some spice to the lineup here. Fortunately, things do get better as the season rolls along, but the hosts are never especially great. Foust is probably the most knowledgeable, and once he loosens up he is pretty funny. Wood is innocuous enough, but I wish he would add a bit more edge to his humor. I started the series hating Ferrara, who feels out of place here, but wound up warming to his stoic charm. Out of the three, he best emulates the kid-in-a-candy-store attitude I'd have behind the wheel of a Lamborghini.
Speaking of cars, there are quite a few in Top Gear US. My favorites are the Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2 Balboni, Aston Martin V12 Vantage and Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. The guys even test out the uniquely styled Porsche Panamera Turbo, which, if you recall, received quite the flogging on the British show. The reaction is much the same here, but I think they do a better job objectively putting the Panamera through the paces on the US show. Another issue I have with Top Gear US is that it glosses over vehicle tech information in the early episodes. All I really recall about the Aston Martin segment is that the V12 Vantage is fast and expensive. Test segments improve dramatically as the series goes on, and I especially liked Foust's segment on the demonically aggressive Morgan Aero SuperSport, which is probably the leading contender in Satan's auto search.
The best challenge segments come toward the end of the season. I enjoyed the "Flying Coupe DeVille" episode where the guys buy old vehicles to destroy. One of the best moments of the season is Ferrara launching his massive Cadillac Coupe DeVille off a dirt ramp. Foust and Wood's race from Los Angeles to Las Vegas is also good. Wood takes a Southwest jet and Foust takes a Ferrari California. The guys also race from Miami to Key West via air, sea and land, but the final moments feel suspiciously staged. Celebrity guests for the season include skater Tony Hawk, singer Kid Rock, actor Ty Burrell, actress Michelle Rodriguez, next-door neighbor Tim Allen and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. The Stig remains, as expected, disguised under his helmet.
Top Gear US: The Complete First Season has trouble leaving the garage, but once out on the open road the show drastically picks up. Hopefully hosts Foust, Wood and Ferrara will improve as they grow more comfortable with each other and the filming process. The cars, cinematography and challenges are all solid and should only improve as production continues. Top Gear US is not yet ready to race its British counterpart, but it puts in a decent first appearance.
PICTURE AND SOUND:
The 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers for each episode are clean and crisp. The beautiful cinematography and exotic locations are supported by the transfer's rich detail and depth, and colors are bold and vibrant. The image tends to run a bit hot, but colors don't bleed and blacks are generally deep. Based on the location of the shot, some noise does creep into the image, and I noticed a bit of banding. The soundtrack for each episode is only 2.0 stereo, which, while disappointing, is not a huge issue. The tracks don't have the range and depth of 5.1 offerings, but they pack a decent punch. Dialogue is always clear, and effects and music are presented without overwhelming the proceedings. English SDH subtitles are available.
Top Gear US is a three-disc set. Four episodes appear on each of the first two discs, and the final two episodes and a few extras appear on the third disc. There is audio commentary from the hosts on episode 9, "America's Toughest Trucks." The hosts joke that anyone watching the episode with commentary needs a hobby, but they do provide a few funny tidbits about the Alaskan shoot. Also included are nine webisodes (12:50 total) that explore the show's production and a multi-segment Poolside Chat with the Hosts (30:19).
Reviewers haven't been kind to Top Gear US: The Complete First Season, which currently holds a 4.2/10 on IMDb. The series does get off to a slow start in its first few episodes, which are dinged by the inexperienced hosts and weak test segments, but hell, the first season of the British Top Gear after its revival in 2002 was not particularly good, either. The show does improve as the season moves forward. The hosts lighten up, the challenges are better and vehicle tech specs actually become important. This is a decent start for the series, but I hope the show will step up its game in season two. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.