As it continues to 'motor' along, collecting accolades and an ever growing fanbase, Britian's terrific Top Gear is also responsible for something reprehensible, something no man should be forced to face - the inevitable American revamp. Claiming the same title and trading the prim personalities of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May for three tools in geek regalia, the US update is like watching a bad SNL skit being taken way too seriously. It just can't hold a candle to the UK version, and how could it. Top Gear remains one of the BBC's longest running shows, an international phenomenon that started off in 1977 as a simple half-hour basic car news magazine format. In the 1990s, presenter Clarkson suggested a more entertaining revamp, and the resulting program has become iconic. Season 16 covers much of the same ground as past series, giving into to celebrity and stunts while always maintaining the cheeky challenge of making automobile reviews cool. With the addition of a couple of sensational specials, this Blu-ray release represents some of the series' very best.
A standard episode of the latest version of Top Gear 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's read all the Twilight books - twice!...") and then the vehicle is timed around the show's track. Then, there is the news segment (always filled with jokes and jibes) followed by another spotlight, and then the main feature begins.
From there, almost every installment of Top Gear has a competition--between Jeremy and the others, between Richard in a car and some hang gliding across an Eastern European countryside, between James and his own sense of propriety--and the results are typically spread out over the course of the rest of the hour. Add in a sequence where a "star" (with rare exception, some British personality or politician) 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 16 is comprised of six shows. Here is a brief overview of what is offered on each installment:
Episode 1: The following cars are reviewed - Ariel Atom 500/ Škoda Yeti/ Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet: Richard challenges a VW Beetle to its 'offspring,' the Porsche. John Bishop is the Star in the NEW Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 2: Reviews: Ferrari 599 GTO/ England vs. Australia in a vehicular version of The Ashes/ Boris Becker is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 3: Review: Rolls-Royce Ghost /Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG/ Ford Focus RS500 / Cosworth Impreza STI CS400 /Volvo C30 PCP/ Feature Challenge: The crew travels to Albania to see which of three cars would be the best for a mafia boss / Jonathan Ross is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 4: Reviews: Pagani Zonda R / Pagani Zonda Tricolore/ Feature Race: Secondhand BMWs are put to the test / Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are the Stars in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 5: Review: Audi RS5 / BMW M3 Competition Pack/ Feature Challenge: Everyone heads to Norway to help clear snow with a converted Combine Harvester / Amber Heard is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 6: Reviews: Jaguar XJ/ Porsche 959 / Ferrari F40 / Feature Challenge: Jeremy drives across Britain, Richard drives his childhood fantasy car, James 'pilots' the latest NASA space exploration vehicle / John Prescott is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
When it's working, when it's not taking itself too seriously or being too sarcastic, Top Gear UK is and always has been one of the best hours of entertainment on any television set anywhere. It's a cracking collection of personalities and probable dream cars. It cannot be stressed enough how magnificent the chemistry is between Clarkson, Hammond, and May. In a 60 Minutes interview from last year, the crotchety old TV presenter argued that the reason he gets along so well with his shorter and slower cast mates is that, in essence, they all hate each other so much that said emotion carries across to the viewers at home, which they then mistakenly believe is respect. Of course, Clarkson is kidding - probably. For all the ribbing and ridiculous name-calling, Top Gear would be nothing without the three irritable idols at the center. Take them away and you have - well, you have the crappy American version, a micromanaged mess that seems purposely created to countermand everything the original stands for and showcases.
Season - or Series - 16 is an interesting one on many levels. As part of the bonus features, we are treated to two special episodes where the gang comes to America (and runs into typical US ignorance and intolerance) while a second installment sees them retracing the Biblical route of the Three Wise Men. Both are enjoyable extended illustrations as to how the program manages to remain viable after so many years. Indeed, just when you think you've seen it all, Clarkson and his pals are chased off by Southern rednecks hellbent on sending them to their own stiff upper lipped layer of Hillbilly Hades. From there on, the trips to Albania and Norway are typical "Ugly Englander" fun (and very funny), while The Ashes competition is interesting for, again, the way in which Australia has adapted the series as its own. As usual, the secondhand challenges remains the most enjoyable. Nothing beats watching the guys try to overcome the various mechanical and personal embarrassments their supposedly excellent cars of choice present.
As for the stars this time around, the USA special gives us Danny Boyle, who is just as amazing as an interview subject as he is a director. Elsewhere, Boris Becker seems a tad out of his element while John Prescott (former Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State) gets his far share of negative catcalls upon arrival. Jonathan Ross is always a pip, trying to one-up Clarkson as both a wit and host, while Amber Heard comes across as down to Earth and very personable. That just leaves the comedians, and of the three, John Bishop is the business. He is funny, self-effacing, and ready to take on any criticism or complaint with viable one liners. For their part, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz's Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are terrific, if a bit tentative. They don't go gonzo and instead keep their at the ready rejoinders holstered. Indeed, some of the guests take their time on Top Gear very seriously indeed. Perhaps it's the fact that, among all the other talk type shows around the globe, it remains one of the most beloved, and best.
Season 16 offers up another example of the series decision to switch over to High Definition, with the Blu-ray 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. Apparently, the BBC can't spring for more complicated exterior cameras. Still, the 1080i/AVC-encode often looks totally realistic and life-like, especially in the studio segments. The interior shots are clean and colorful, with a significant amount of detail, from to the whiteness of Richard's non-artificially brightened smile or the vacant stare in James's clueless eyes. 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, especially since the series takes its time finding interesting sound cues and great ambient scores to back up its footage. 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.
Again, we are treated to the two specials. There is also a collection of additional laps from Bishop, Pegg, and Frost. There is a behind the scenes tour, an extended interview with Prescott, and some joking intro/outro bits with Clarkson, Hammond, and May. Whether or not this material will make it to the actual final product remains to be seen.
With new cars coming out every month and no end to the interest of grease monkeys in sight, Top Gear could easily continue on ad infinitum. While chatting up the latest coupe or luxury sedan may grow stale, the bubbly personalities presenting (and the series' often interesting choices for guest star) guaranteed an indefinite run. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, this masterful UK entertainment has to be seen to be truly appreciated. You may not know a transmission from a transsexual and could care less about the brake horse power of the money pit your mid-life crisis father just sank your inheritance into, but within the first few minutes, you'll definitely enjoy the byplay of Clarkson, Hammond and May. Just avoid anything having to do with the US version of same and you'll be quite all right.
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