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.
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.
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.