Monday, July 6, 2009

Tip-Top Gear

"If you told someone that you had a dream that you were going to race a supercar against a jet-powered man on rollerskates, they'd tell you to lay off the strong cheese at night."
- Richard Hammond

Top Gear is...what is that word?...amazing. No, seriously. Yes, it's a car show, and a British car show at that, which is a bit poncey and ridiculous when you consider that the Americans invented car culture and the Japanese perfected the drive. But Top Gear is the only place on television that features races between the Bugatti Veyron and an RAF fighter jet, so it's worth watching. It's funny, and very, very loud.

The show is a blend of news, reviews, interviews and (no finishing rhyme? Damn) challenges. "News" takes the form of the three hosts sitting around discussing emerging car information - redesigns, new models, and cracking wise at each other's expense. "Reviews" finds our engaging guides testing new cars - and they're the fastest, loudest, shiniest and priciest models money can buy. Richard, Jeremy or James usually tools around the splendid European countryside or some apocalyptic-looking track, pointing out flaws and features in cars like the Rolls Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé, or the Aston Martin DBS. It's terrific fantasy, especially for non-drivers or the urban poor (ahem). "Interviews" is the segment "Star in a Resonably Priced Car," which places some Brit in a Daewoo Lacetti (a Chevy Optra for us Canucks), and times a lap. The car is, admittedly, a total box of crap, but folks as diverse as Ewan McGregor, Simon Cowell (who came off as a little bit gay in his interview), Ronnie "Rolling Stones" Wood and, um, Dame Helen Mirren have all taken 'er for a spin. Some of them are fascinating: did you know that wiener James Blunt knows how to drive a tank?

That's all well and good, but the real fun starts with the challenges. Going above and beyond the usual drag racing, the Top Gear production team has dreamed up some devilish tasks for J, J and R. They've been asked to turn automobiles into amphibious cars and then pilot them across the English Channel - for the uninformed, that's the busiest shipping lane in the world. They've driven across Botswana in cars from the 1980s, threatened with death if their cars broke down on the Makgadikgadi Salt Plains. They've raced against every mode of transportation, including bikes, dogs, trains, jets, bulls, runners, and some guy who strapped on high-waders and walked across a river. Oh - they've also sent a Reliant Robin into space. Sort of.

The show is brilliant. Taking power and speed seriously, without turning into the droning, hair-gelled morons that car enthusiasts often are, the hosts managed to make cars fun for people who get glazed of eye when RPMs and spoilers are brought up. James May, one of the alleged car experts, drives a Fiat Panda, for God's sake. Jeremy Clarkson is hilarious; in telling his audience that the Honda Civic Type R has a less that smooth ride, he quips, "Even if you're a teenager, even if you're used to sleeping on the floor and getting stabbed, this is intolerable." And Richard Hammond, the pixie-like third host, is just flat-out adorable.

The show succeeds because the passion these guys feel for cars doesn't sap them of a sense of humour or the ability to live in the real world. For non-car people, the hour is still enjoyable, due largely to the three hosts and their inability to interact without making fun of each other. Dude energy? These men have it coming out their ears. They act unabashedly like little boys, and both the shouty cars and the asinine challenges are designed for little boys and the men they grew into. Sure, some of the technical specs get a little dull, and endless out-of-focus shots of shiny cars can get a bit tedious, but it's a small price to pay when the whole thing is just so much fun. The show is fun the way a car should be fun: full of testosterone and loud noises, and always getting you to somewhere exciting.

1 comment:

  1. The "strong cheese at night" line has to be one of my favorite top gear quotes.