Top Gear -- TV Review

Issue 54 - Reviews: Top Gear
Courtesy of History

A test Top Gear called Snake vs. Snake raced a Dodge Viper against a Cobra attack helicopter.

Fear not, brave Yanks. This American version of the Brit import is entertaining and smart.

The two most important things to know about History Channel's American import of the British sensation 'Top Gear': First, no, it's not as good as the original. Second, the new version does not -- in the parlance of those worried souls who keep asking -- suck.

There was never any real doubt about the first point. Take your dating, your singing, your surviving and your running about the globe. The original Top Gear is quite possibly the best unscripted series of the past decade or so. Nothing beats Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May yammering about cars, driving them into the ground all over the globe and absolutely soaking in four-wheel fanaticism. Top Gear can be outsourced, but it can't be duplicated. The original goes into television's hall of fame, first ballot.

So anyone keen on bitching and moaning about the U.S. version not comparing to the Brit original should just save the bandwidth. Everyone gets it.

But whether an American version could be any good on its own was very debatable. At one point, Adam Carolla was the host for an NBC version that didn't get past its pilot. Jay Leno's name has been mentioned in nearly every conversation related to the importation of this gem. He's a huge car geek, and he did get permission to rip off one of the best features on Top Gear: having a celebrity race a crappy car to beat the best times of other celebrities. Only Leno's version was heinous. Go figure.

Do not take lightly the angst of American car geeks who were filled with jitters of dread that Americans would make a K Car out of a Lamborghini. Actually, the biggest worry was that an American show would kowtow before U.S. automakers and refuse to indulge in what Brit hosts Clarkson, Hammond and May frequently do, which is to scathingly strip cars down to the frame then light them on fire before putting the flames out with urine. Only verbally.

Fear not. History's Top Gear, judged solely as its own entity, is entertaining, knowledgeable and thankfully unafraid to judge rattletraps harshly. (It's nothing like the denigration from the original, but three episodes proved that our Top Gear isn't going to roll over. If the show is successful, you can probably expect more venom and sarcasm for cars that deserve it.)

Top Gear on History looks very much like the original. It's fronted by a trio of hosts: comedian-actor Adam Ferrara; Tanner Foust, professional racer and stunt driver; and Rutledge Wood, a host and reporter covering NASCAR.  It's shot inside an airport hangar with an audience that stands up, like the original, and uses car seats for guests. Instead of "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car," we have "Big Star, Small Car," and yes, the Stig lives. The Stig is a professional driver dressed in all white who you can't see through his helmet lens. He does not talk. He just drives. Fast.

Fans of the original will see some of the same gimmicks (finding a hunk of a car for $1,000 and racing it, driving a car full of water, etc.) Although it may take time to adjust to the hosts, the mix works. Ferrara can be the go-to comedy guy with a passion for cars and a crazy streak; Foust can be the pro driver capable of just about any move and smug about cars (which adds a necessary element when he fails); and Wood is the big Southern dude with exceptional knowledge and a manner that's down-home with a lot of the let's-do-this-thing American attitude.

The stars racing in the first three episodes are astronaut Buzz Aldrin and actors Dominic Monaghan and Ty Burrell. At one point, when Foust is espousing the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution a tad too lovingly, Rutledge says, "It looks like it fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch coming down."

In another episode, they all mock Buick when two of its cars are listed as least likely to get tickets. Wood says it's because "people who drive Buicks are just about to die." Ferrara adds: "Their slogan should be, 'Buick: How's Your Hip?' "

So, during the course of three episodes, there's not much sucking up, enough dissing to keep the whole thing honest, tons of magnificent cars, fast driving and enough goofiness to make this Top Gear get off the line without any mishaps.

It's a promising beginning for a show most thought would end up in a ditch.