In its own way...just as enjoyable as the original British series. The BBC, through Warner Home Video, has released Top Gear: The Complete Second Season, a 4-disc, 16-episode collection of the popular History series' 2011-2012 season. An Americanized version of the international smash hit car show from England, hosted by Tanner Foust, Rutledge Wood, and Adam Ferrara, this U.S. version of Top Gear took a lot of flack from fans of the Beeb's original (myself included), but once you get into its American context and quit comparing the hosts to their British counterparts, it's a lot of fun. Over 90 minutes of extras and outtakes are included here in this sparkling widescreen transfers.
When NBC first announced they were going to do an American version of Top Gear in 2008, I couldn't see how they would duplicate the original's success, since so much of the appeal of the U.K. version lies in that distinctively British smash-up of its delightfully bickering, insulting hosts James "Captain Slow" May (the marching-to-a-different drummer plodder), Richard "The Hampster" Hammond (the peripatetic tiny person), and Jeremy Clarkson (towering, sneering public school bully git). So when the U.S. version of Top Gear finally wound up on cable in 2010, I made the mistake of tuning in and expecting either a complete overhaul of the format to appeal to U.S. audiences (which the producers slavishly didn't do), or a reasonable facsimile of the original, right down to the same kind of waspish cum juvenile/destructive humor...which wasn't there (sophomoric, yes...but too sweet and cuddly initially for my liking--the American version wanted to be liked; the U.K. version said, "Bollocks to you."). I pretty much checked out of those first two seasons, but my high school son asked me to watch a few of the third season episodes with him, and I found myself, surprisingly, enjoying this American version quite a lot.
Maybe that's because the third season has dropped some of the more clunky components of the BBC version. They're still here in this second season--the completely superfluous live audience, the "Big Celebrity in a Small Car" lap trials, and the Stig (at least I don't think the Stig is on anymore...). By this second go-around, it's clear that the genial hosts have developed a smoother chemistry together, and the challenges are inventive and well-executed, but the above-mentioned elements seem present merely to ape the original, with no real purpose except to ultimately gum up the works. Who cares if an audience is behind the hosts for their unnecessary segues between sequences? Who gives a sh*t how fast some D-lister drives, or what collector car they're able to buy now, or what project they have coming up (in one episode here, one of those Harold or Kumar douchebags talks about his Prius and U.S. foreign oil dependency. Shut the f*ck up). And if you can't use the Stig the way he's used in the British version (a creepy, funny butt of jokes/supernatural entity) ...what's the point of having him show up here? All any of this stuff does is take more time away from cars blowing up.
And blow up they do here...and crash, and grind, and smash, and disintegrate. What I like best about the American Top Gear is the emphasis on tinkering, on modifying and engineering the cars into freakish, gimcrack monsters that you know are eventually going to fold up like a cheap suit after inhuman punishment. That celebration of Yankee know-how and can-doism, wedded to the equally quintessential American spirit of making things bigger and badder, permeates the show, and gives it a hands-on feel the British version doesn't come close to. Add to that the expansive feel of the wild American locales featured, and always the feeling that the hosts are going on some kind of exploration/journey/roadtrip (the heart of the "mother road" American mythology), and the American Top Gear takes on an almost epic feel compared to its more confined and hampered British cousin (they always have to leave manicured, cramped England to get a bit of scale and scope to their challenges).
As for the hosts, they're an engaging trio, with Foust the cocky-but-well-mannered, non-threatening pro driver, Wood the even more polite, cuddly tech wonk, and Ferrara the goofy Barbarino-Lite of the bunch. If they're faking mutual frat bro affection, they're good actors, because they really seem to get along with each other, and that's key to creating TV-friendly programming that people will want to welcome into their home week after week (my kids love this show, and especially now that they can hear the swearing on the DVDs). If at times the guys sound a tad too scripted here, I blame the producers for keeping Top Gear so relentlessly polished, ultra-smooth and over-produced (and I don't need the obviously manufactured "accidents," either). Sure it's gorgeous to look at (in a processed-food, picture postcard way), and everything from the challenges to the dialogue is designed for maximum flow with minimal hitches. However, I wish they'd just let the hosts go and get a little wild and wooly, a little funky and unstructured in their horseplay and particularly in their bantering (like in the outtakes and extras presented here). If they'd try that, the show might really challenge its better-received British host.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.