Top Gear tries, again, to make it in America

Top Gear tries, again, to make it in America

After a string of failures in the US market, the international TV phenomenon that is Top Gear will try, once more, to have itself translated into Americanese. The first episode is due to air on the History Channel on Sunday 21 November, and will not be featuring Clarkson, Hammond, or May. Which may be a welcome relief for some of us, and a potential disaster for the producers. By KEVIN BLOOM.

There are people in The Daily Maverick editorial team, award-winning though they may be, who’re going to disagree with me vehemently, but I’m compelled to say it anyway – Top Gear started boring the hell out of me about ten episodes into its first run on South African television. [Remind us to use this as an example of our supreme commitment to freedom of speech: we even let traitors say their say. – Ed] I know, I know, the “genius” of the show is in Jeremy Clarkson’s inimitable British wit, the way he gets away with being paid a fortune for acting like an adolescent, the stunts he’s allowed to pull alongside fellow man-boys Richard Hammond and James May without ever having to bear the consequences. It’s kind of like why the world loves Keith Richards: here’s what it would be like to be a perpetual kid, to have perpetual fun, to never have to adhere to the rules that the rest of humanity is encumbered by.

But give me Keith Richards any day; at least the man has talent. Top Gear, that endless round of car reviews, celebrity driving challenges, and cross-country expeditions (with obligatory late-night shots of village pubs) has about as much nuance and subtlety as, well, as a car show. Still, the programme has an estimated 350 million viewers worldwide, a fact that Clarkson’s mate AA Gill – who’s also a UK Sunday Times columnist – boils down to this: “[Top Gear] is a triumph of the craft of programme making, of the minute, obsessive, musical masonry of editing, the French polishing of colourwashing and grading.” Which is all well and good, but what about the content?

This last question will be foremost on producer Dave Coleman’s mind as the new American version of Top Gear airs on the History Channel Sunday night. As the New York Times has it: “’I just want it to not suck,’ said Coleman… And considering the cringe-worthy record of virtually every automotive television series produced in the United States, that’s a real worry for anyone who was already emotionally invested in the British show.”

Apparently, this is Coleman’s third (or fourth) attempt to produce Top Gear for an American viewership. In 2005, the series was edited down to allow for the US’s heavy advertising imperatives, which resulted in 18 repackaged episodes – featuring Clarkson, Hammond and May as hosts – for Discovery Channel that got different ratings. That same year, Discovery and BBC collaborated on a pilot episode for the US market that had different (American) hosts and no studio audience. The pilot never made it to air and Discovery never turned the repackaged shows into a series.

In 2008, the Americans, who’d been watching (perhaps in disbelief) as Top Gear became an even bigger global phenomenon, tried again. This time it was national network NBC who attempted to collaborate with BBC Worldwide, and auditions were once again held for American hosts. Dan Neil, the only motoring journalist ever to have won a Pulitzer Prize, was, according to the New York Times, an obvious choice. But Neil’s camera tests with comedian Adam Carolla were a disaster, so the hosts wound up being Carolla, Tanner Foust (a rally and stunt driver), and Eric Stromer (who’d made a name for himself in the home improvement genre). And who was the first Star in a Reasonably Priced Car? You guessed it – none other than David “The Hoffmeister” Hasselhoff.

Needless to say, NBC decided not to go ahead with Top Gear as a series. While the New York Times journalist, John Pearley Huffman, who attended the taping, said it was a “slick piece of professional show business,” the network had just come off a crash on a Knight Rider remake and didn’t have the stomach for it. Carolla, for his part, didn’t much appreciate the implied comparison to the Hasselhoff show.

That said, the Americans shouldn’t feel too bad about the aforementioned string of failures. Notes Huffman: “Creating versions of Top Gear in the rest of the world has not been easy, either. An Australian variation begun in 2008 has gone through several cast changes and switched networks as it entered its third season. A Russian version completed its first season in 2009, but no new episodes have been broadcast this year.”

The American version of Top Gear that’s due to air on the History Channel on Sunday night will be hosted by Tanner Foust, comedian Adam Ferrara (Carolla couldn’t make it), and Rutledge Wood, some dude who’s done comic reports for the Nascar coverage on Speed Channel. The budget will be a lot less than what the BBC show gets, and The Stig will be different, although still anonymous. “For the first 10 episodes,” says the New York Times, “the American version is closely following the British blueprint. The American test track runs across the old runways of El Toro the same way that the original’s track runs on the old runways of Dunsfold Aerodrome south of London. Both have studio sets built inside hangars.”   

The smart odds, given Top Gear’s track-record in the US, should be on this one going the way of its predecessors. Say what you want about the (boring, churlish, self-consciously cute, less-than-funny) antics of Clarkson, Hammond, and May, they seem to be the only ones with the right chemistry to make an international empire out of a car show. DM

Read more: “Translating Top Gear into American,” in the New York Times

Photo: The (UK) Stig in action


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