What’s the deal with Top Gear USA?

Now, there’s a bunch of motoring enthusiasts that enjoy watching Top Gear, one of the most renowned and recognized automobile shows today. On Top Gear, they review all different types of consumer cars, from hot hatchbacks and sport utility vehicles, to the upper echelon of car manufacturers, like Ferrari, Mercedes, Lamborghini, Porsche, and so on. On top of all this, the three presenters, Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond, all partake in various zany and often hilarious car challenges, from building their own motor homes, to seeing if they can reach the border of a country with a limited tank of gas. In every aspect, this show has something for everyone, for car enthusiasts as well as the more pedestrian viewers that watch the show.

And of course, in typical American fashion, the United States just HAD to make their own rendition. Whenever the formula for a television show generates an unprecedented amount of buzz in Europe or anywhere else in the world, the United States is always keen to provide their interpretation of the program. For instance, Japan brought us Iron Chef, which is a cooking game show where two chefs go head-to-head in cooking dishes based on a theme ingredient for a set time limit of 60 minutes. In America, Iron Chef gained a very strong cult following when it aired on the Food Network, and then after the end of the series in Japan, the Food Network decided to revive the series as Iron Chef America, which features more prominent American TV chefs, as well as one of the original Iron Chefs. Iron Chef America does do very well in ratings even to this day, but you can sense that it’s just not the same as the original counterpart.

Bringing it back to Top Gear, the United States wanted to feed off of the popularity of the UK program with their own rendition of the show. The show was picked up by the History Channel, and featured three hosts as well: Rutledge Wood, a motorsport racing analyst; Adam Ferrara, a terrible comedian; and Tanner Foust, one of America’s best stunt drivers and all-around racers. It’s a grouping that, on paper, would appear to fit: Rutledge is a zany car nut that knows a lot cars and automotive racing, Tanner is the competition driver that knows what it’s like to be behind the wheel of a supermachine, and Adam who’s also a gearhead in his own right, who can also provide some comic relief.

So what isn’t working with the American version of Top Gear?

Well, for one, it’s on the History Channel. Now, for one, the History Channel does NOT have as much money as the BBC. In fact, there aren’t very many television stations in the world that has as much to spend as BBC does. If you watch the UK version of Top Gear, you immediately notice a wealth of production value in each of the shows that they put out, with incredible graphics, inventive camera angles, and a sizable-enough budget to pull off some of the crazy stunts you see on TV. The History Channel, on the other hand, doesn’t have quite as much money. History is part of A+E Networks, which is owned by Hearst Corporation (originally founded by William Randolph Hearst himself, as a newspaper company), Disney, and NBC Universal, who all partake in a joint venture. However, you get a sense that the History Channel just isn’t going to get as many admiring looks by the parent companies when compared to the other products co-owned by these companies, such as ESPN. Therefore, Top Gear USA suffers from a lack of funding, and you can generally see the difference in set design, production values, and even the track that they use to test cars. The airfield that they have is a relatively beat up strip of land that has grass growing in the cracks of it.

Also, Top Gear USA’s budget also hurts them in another area: they don’t have the same quality of writers on their staff. Now, it’s worth noting that the three hosts of Top Gear USA don’t necessarily have a writing background, which isn’t really a problem, but you can tell that their manner of presenting the show is dampened by the fact that they’re reading off of cue cards. Sure, the UK version of Top Gear probably does use cue cards as well, but the videotaped segments with recorded voiceovers from the presenters as very well written, and that’s because all three of the hosts from the British iteration of the show having an extensive background in journalism. Coupled with an even more talented writing staff, and you have a very solid team that have a lot more control with their program segments, which is something that the American version seems to lack.

The US version of Top Gear also comes off as too derivative and dependent on the original series, implementing many of the same segments and gimmicks that are done on the original show. Now, it’s tough to top some of the stunts that Top Gear does in the UK, since a lot of them are really creative, really risky, and haven’t been done before, most of the time. the US version tried to make a statement by having a helicopter chase around a Corvette through a town, but it still doesn’t seem to make the car feel like a star.

There’s one other thing that the American version of Top Gear seems to lack, as well: controversy. The presenters on Top Gear are no strangers to complaints about the manner in which they present the material to the consumer. Wikipedia even has a page dedicated to the topics on Top Gear that have received a substantial amount of complaints, whether it be comments that are derogatory to Mexican people, implying that Albanians are all mafia members, or suggesting that all truck drivers solicit prostitutes. But there’s always this edginess that the UK version of Top Gear brings to the table, whereas the US version just feels more like an episode of Motorweek.

How can they revise the US version of Top Gear to make it a separate entity? Well, Tanner Foust might already have the answer to that. See, he already hosts a show on Speed called Supercars Exposed, where he test drives all the cars that you want to see – the Gallardo, Carrera GT, etc. – and the show has a very well-planned format. There’s racing on the show, which is Tanner’s forte, as well as a bunch of other entertaining prospects, but it doesn’t go over the top like it would on Top Gear. It’s more adrenaline, and I think it’s a good way to present the US version of Top Gear. With that being said, I know that it’s still really early in the existence of Top Gear in America to honestly make a judgment on it. When you’re so used to the main program on BBC, it becomes difficult to compare any automotive show to it. the US version of Top Gear isn’t bad, but you have a sense that it can be so much better, and a lot of that probably just has to do with the network that carries it, and the budget that network has to develop it. Still, I have hopes that the show will take off, if the right things are done to it. After all, even the UK version of Top Gear had some humble beginnings before becoming the show it is today.

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  1. I love the British version of Top Gear. The chemistry between the hosts is one of the things that I think makes that show such a stand out. It’s just not there on the US version.

    • It’s definitely true that the camaraderie makes the UK version so great. It probably didn’t take a while for the presenters to click, so you got a sense that this was a show where three buddies talk about cars. With the US version, it just doesn’t have that same personality, and it really hurts the program.

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