At this point, the cars no longer matter. They're a never-ending parade of high tech parts and gearhead fantasies that render each new model interchangeable within the TV series dynamic. Sure, there is someone in the home audience hoping that the new Lamborghini gets a critical overhaul by the seminal series hosts, and there is no denying the thrill of seeing a high profile star (Alice Cooper!) in a reasonably priced Kia. But the real draw of Top Gear circa 2012 (or in the case of this Blu-ray release, Summer of 2011) remains the quirky, eccentric approach to car culture. From trying to retrofit the British railway system with a new kind of "train" to taking vehicles of questionable present day value and running them through a collection of insane challenges, our trio of hosts - aging icon Jeremy Clarkson, pop hit show host wannabe Richard Hammond, and cultural curmudgeon James May - now make up the majority of the show's continuing allure. While autos come and go, the companionship and chemistry between this hilarious carburetor cabal makes the series a seminal broadcast great - and any home video release a must-own addition to one's collection.
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 only dogs can understand what he is saying...") and then the vehicle is timed around the show's track. Then, there is the news segment (almost 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 someone swimming the Channel, between James and a his own inherent slowness--and the results are spread out over the course of the rest of the hour. Add in a sequence where a "star" (Simon Pegg, Tom Cruise) 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 17 is comprised of six shows. Here is a brief overview of what is offered on each installment:
Episode 1: The following cars are reviewed - Marauder/ BMW 1 Series M Coupe/ Mini John Cooper Works WRC/ Jaguar E-Type / Feature Challenge: James vs. Olympic Skeleton Gold Medal Winner Amy Williams/ Alice Cooper is the Stars in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 2: Reviews: Aston Martin Virage / Citroën DS3 Racing/ Fiat 500C Abarth/ Renaultsport Clio 200 Cup/ Feature Race: The trio take on Italy and the Monaco Grand Prix in their choice of high performance hatchbacks/ Ross Noble is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 3: Review: Range Rover Evoque SD4/ McLaren MP4-12C/ Ferrari 458 Italia/ Feature Challenge: Second Hand Cars for the Price of a Nissan Pixo/ Sebastian Vettel is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 4: Reviews: Jaguar XKR-S/ Nissan GT-R/ Feature Challenge: New, Cheaper Train Travel via Modified Caravans /Rowan Atkinson is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 5: Review: Lotus T125/ Updated Jensen Interceptor/ Feature Challenge: The Team Use Second-Hand Military Equipment to Destroy a Block of Buildings/ Bob Geldof is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Episode 6: Reviews: Nissan Leaf / Peugeot iOn/ Lamborghini Aventador/ Feature Challenge: Jeremy and James to the Seaside - In Electric Cars/ Richard Hangs out with an Amputee Rally Team / Louis Walsh is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
At some point, they're going to make a Top Gear movie. The cars will be part of the production landscape (as they are in the TV series proper), but the focus will turn on the amazing comic interaction between Clarkson, Hammond, and May. No other show on the British airwaves provides such a consistent level of guilty pleasure grins than this excuse for bravura brake horsepower and spent tire rubber. Our hosts are like a Victorian age Three Stooges, incapable of the physical shtick the famed '30s icons but still taking each other on with witty bon mots and snide commentary. By the end of every episode, Clarkson has been reduced to a boring old codger, some aspect of Hammond's too perky youth coup conceit is challenged, and May...well, May is mercilessly lambasted for everything from his hairdo to his hatred of the famed German test track at Ehra-Lessien. As they banter back and forth, as the compete to try and best each other in every possible way, the show attains a kind of sophisticated silliness. These are grown men being paid to talk about cars, after all, and yet they managed a kind of spontaneous Monty Python skit every time they appear together.
And Series 17 gives them ample opportunity to run ramshackle over each other. When the trio take the hot hatchback challenge - well, at least TWO of them bring the proper kind of vehicle - they make you want to take the trip across Italy and around the Monaco Grand Prix track with them. Similarly, the train episode is a classic of preplanned bumbling and bluster. As the various snooty suits from the myriad of British bureaucracies look down their noses at the men's attempt to take rail travel "to the people," we piss ourselves laughing at their lame, blinkered approaches. One of the best excursions though has to be James and Jeremy's journey to the seaside in the latest model of electric cars. Only able to travel a certain set distance before refueling, they wind up discovering the vehicle's Achilles Heel - there is no place to recharge them. Eventually, they beg a college to let them run an extension cord into one of their offices so they can top up (which only takes...13 hours?!?!?!). By the end of the trip, the duo have determined that no one in their right mind would ever even consider driving one of these battery draining albatrosses - unless the UK builds a series of electrified grids over the motorways and turns the machines into mock bumper cars.
As for the other aspects of the show, this Series has some great 'stars.' Alice Cooper is so genuine and genial that he almost beams with personability, while Rowan Aktinson takes the more serious approach - and still wows the crowd with his wordless responses to certain luxury models. While Louis Walsh, Sebastian Vettel, and Ross Noble will be relatively unknown to American viewers, the real gem here is former Boomtown Rat and Live Aid founder (Sir) Bob Geldof. Razzing him mercilessly for his choice in transportation, the man who made famine in Africa an '80s cause celeb dishes right back, taking Clarkson down several sarcastic pegs. Of course, if all you care about is torque and RPMS, the series continues its lingering love affair with gas guzzlers. Richard's overview of the massive Marauder (about three times larger than a Hummer) is hilarious, as is James' trek to the USA to discuss the latest Range Rover. Yes, we get the sleek, sophisticated PR presentations that would make any manufacturer gush, but the guys always balance our said showcases with honest, legitimate criticism. This, along with the other stapes of the series makes Top Gear an absolute delight. Leave it to the British to take a subject as dry as car culture and turn it into an hour long exercise in entertainment.
With the conversion to high definition now complete, Season 17 definitely highlights the benefits of the overall upgrade. As usual, the studio material is crisp and clean, and loaded with details, but now the filmed footage matches it in quality and clarity. There are sequences here so slick that they remind you of the best that 2012 Hollywood has to offer. The 1080i/AVC-encode remains totally realistic and life-like, with few of the flaws found in previous releases.
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.
This time around, we get a collection of added content (all found on a third disc) that provides both insights and insults. There are interviews with Noble and Williams, as well as new intros from Clarkson and May, as well as Jake Humphrey on Formula-1 champion Vettel and his lap. Finally, there is backstage glimpses of the stars whizzing around the track for their various time trials. It's all very amusing and intriguing. What's the affront, you may ask? The inclusion of an episode from the AWFUL US version of Top Gear. If you want to see why the American take on this classic will never work, just watch the dumbbell approach of the Yank hosts and you'll instantly understand.
With each new Blu-ray release, Top Gear becomes more and more part of one's own aesthetic approach. It's divine in how it measures out both information and inanity, puffing up its product while cutting down its presenters with each acuity. Because of a couple of minor technical flaws, a rating of DVD Talk Collector's Series is impossible. However, one can easily argue for the highest end of the Highly Recommended scale, considering how engaging and rewatchable these episodes are. Surely there will come a time when either the BBC or the boys will figure that their tenure as TV's greatest comic collection has run its course, and Top Gear will rev its final engine. Until them, we have some of the most amazing and entertaining television around - and not just because of the cars.
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