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Is 'Top Gear' too cool for Yanks?
Posted Feb. 16, 2007

Tom Anderson
Editor in Chief

Last week something more rare and awe-inspiring than Halley’s Comet, snow falling in Malibu and Nicole Richie shopping for a girdle combined took place. What was this momentously monumental occasion? Why, the BBC show “Top Gear” being shown on American TV, of course.

The basic premise of “Top Gear” is not unlike that of this country’s longest-running automotive magazine show, PBS’s “Motorweek.” Both programs put scores of new cars and trucks through their paces, while also delivering automotive news and feature stories. The big difference, however, is in the execution.

While “Motorweek” exudes a no-nonsense, “Just the facts, ma’am” aura anchored by host/producer John Davis, those crazy Brits turned the genre on its ear and filled that ear with marmalade, starting with the fact they employ three of the wittiest, most snarky and most easy-to-relate-to blokes to ever grace a screen.

There’s the long-haired-but-otherwise-archetypical English gentleman, James May; the diminutive, butt-of-many-a-joke pretty-boy, Richard Hammond; and, the ringleader of this ratings dream team, the lanky, curly-haired curmudgeon, Jeremy Clarkson. Individually, the lads are okay, but put them together and they are mesmerizing; their chemistry is that good.

Then there’s their sidekick, retained primarily for blitzing the truly high-performance hardware around the show’s test track. He’s called the Stig, and while he never speaks and his face is always covered by the visor on his racing helmet, this mysterious master of car-control has earned a cult following of his own.

Okay, so the show’s stars have personality galore. That’s all? Ah…no. The quality of the production, camerawork, audio, editing and every other aspect of the show’s creation is enough to make the Communications Department’s own Don Pollock drop his cigar in awe. Example: In his review of the Lotus Exige, Clarkson frantically thrashes the flyweight sports car around the test track in an attempt to outmaneuver an Apache attack helicopter, the camera cutting back and forth between the two vehicles at all the right times and from all the right angles. The cherry atop this audio-visual sundae? That would be Mötorhead’s head-banging classic “Ace of Spades” blasting away in the background. In short, this single 8-minute or so segment is pure zen.

But it gets better. The boys often leave the new car testing behind and do feature stories that are both ridiculous and sublime. In the past, this has meant everything from teaching a nun to drive a monster truck, attempting to destroy a Toyota pickup (and failing!), and going “caravanning” (English English for “vacationing in an RV”), all while dishing out that uniquely British brand of humor and pull-no-punches honesty, because unlike 99.9 percent of American auto journalists, they aren’t afraid of calling a crap car just that (even though they prefer to use “rubbish”).

Inevitably, something this good has to have a catch, and sadly “Top Gear” is no exception. The once in a blue moon airings on Yankee TV (specifically the Science Channel, of all places) are of but a handful of watered-down, “repackaged” table scraps assembled specifically for us “dumb ‘Muricans.” Apparently, the Beeb doesn’t think we would be able to appreciate their masterpiece in its unmolested form, complete with UK inside jokes, vehicles not sold here and disparaging jokes about Americans and our cars. But I and thousands of other stars-and-stripes waving fans are tired of having to get our fixes on Google Video and YouTube, and can’t see any harm in airing recent, un-edited episodes on BBC America in a regular time slot.

Clearly, this is a situation where everyone loses. Why can’t the suits in London just make things easy?

Tom Anderson, a senior journalism major, is editor in chief of the Campus Times. He can be reached by e-mail at tanderson1@ulv.edu.