Captain Slow, the Old Man, and the Hamster make Judge Bill Gibron smile a UK mile.
Our reviews of Top Gear: The Complete Season 13 (published October 16th, 2010), Top Gear: The Complete Season 10 (published April 23rd, 2009), Top Gear: The Complete Season 12 (published January 25th, 2010), Top Gear: The Complete Season 14 (Blu-ray) (published February 19th, 2011), Top Gear: The Complete Season 15 (Blu-ray) (published February 19th, 2011), Top Gear: The Complete Season 16 (Blu-ray) (published August 8th, 2011), Top Gear: The Complete Season 17 (Blu-ray) (published February 20th, 2012), Top Gear: The Complete Season 18 (published July 14th, 2012), and Top Gear US: Season One (published August 5th, 2011) are also available.
And On that Bombshell, it's Time to Say—MORE TOP GEAR!
Leave it to the British to find a way of making even the most mundane of subjects outrageously entertaining. Only the English could turn an afternoon's gardening into something as superb as Ground Force, or DIY interior decorating into a cheeky competition a la Changing Rooms. But who thought non-gear heads could love a TV series about high end luxury supercars? Would anyone except the most dedicated follower brake horsepower fashion even care if Ferrari tweaked its flap paddle gearbox or if BMW continues to sell the same old models under new modern (overpriced) names? If you're a lover of fun, inventive programming, you do because the BBC have Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May to guide the uninitiated and the gonzo grease monkey through a full hour of Top Gear once a week. Now available on DVD in single series (season) sets, even the most clueless combustion engine novice can marvel at men humorously enjoying speed, performance, and POOOOOOOWWEEEEEEERRR!
Facts of the Case
Top Gear is one of the UK's longest running shows. It started off in 1977 as a simple half-hour basic car news magazine format. In the 1990s, presenter Jeremy Clarkson suggested a more entertaining revamp, and the resulting program has become a huge hit. A standard episode of this Top Gear 2.0 usually begins with an automobile review/profile—the latest from Bugati or Porsche, let's say. Then the car is handed over to the team's tame racing driver, a shadowing anonymous figure known only as The Stig. There is usually some joke surrounding his arrival ("some say, he has no nipples…") and then the vehicle is timed around the show's track. Then, there is the news segment (always tongue in cheek) followed by another spotlight, and then the main feature begins.
Almost every installment of Top Gear has a competition—between Jeremy and the others, between Richard in a car and some guy climbing a mountain, between James and a bullet train—and the results are spread out over the course of the rest of the hour. Add in a look at the Cool Wall (which new models are cool and which are not) and a sequence where a "star" (Helen Mirren, Simon Cowell) is placed in the show's reasonable priced car. After a jovial sit down Q&A, they race around the track and their times are compared to those of other "stars."
As with most British TV, Season 11 is comprised of six shows. Here is a brief overview of what is offered on each installment:
• Episode 1: Ferrari 430 Scuderia review / Feature Challenge: £1000 Police Car / Fuel Economy Investigation / Alan Carr and Justin Lee Collins are the Stars in the Reasonably Priced Car.
• Episode 2: Reviews: Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, Subaru Impreza WRX STi, Audi RS6, Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series / Feature Race: Audi RS6 vs. French Skiers / Rupert Penry-Jones and Peter Firth are the Stars in the Reasonably Priced Car.
• Episode 3: Review: Bentley Brooklands / Feature Challenge: Cheap Cars—Alfa Romeos for £1000 / James Corden and Rob Brydon are the Stars in the Reasonably Priced Car.
• Episode 4: Reviews: Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione and Nissan GT-R/ Feature Race: Nissan GT-R VS Japanese Bullet Train—Hakui to Chiba / Fiona Bruce and Kate Silverton are the Stars in the Reasonably Priced Car.
• Episode 5: Review: Nissan GT-R/ Feature Challenge: Classic Luxury Limousines: Mercedes-Benz 600 vs. Rolls-Royce Corniche and Daihatsu Terios Fox Hunting / Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis are the Stars in the Reasonably Priced Car.
• Episode 6: Reviews: Gumpert Apollo, Mitsuoka Orochi, and Mitsuoka Galue III / Feature Challenge: The British (Top Gear) vs. The Germans (D Motor) / Jay Kay is the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
You don't have to love cars to love Top Gear. While it might help (and Lord knows the show does more than its fair share to cater to the V8 geek), this is a program more about personality than petrol. Over the course of its seemingly endless run, the producers have found the perfect combination of classic British clip (May), post-millennial UK jive (Hammond) and grumpy old man (Clarkson) to run their six cylinder circus. How these three interact and play off each other is one of Top Gear's many pleasures. They love to mock and play jokes on each other (Hammond get particular ribbing for his faux fashionable, teeth whitening propensities while May is lovingly referred to as "Captain Slow") in a combination of one-upmanship and begrudging professional respect. On the other hand, they never allow cheek to get in the way of information. If you love high priced, top of the line motor cars, Top Gear is your crack. These men get to drive and describe the best, from £40,000 sedans to £400,000 handmade masterworks. They are brutally honest ("the steering is rubbish") and have been known to gush from time to time ("brilliant" and "epic" being some favorite fawning adjectives). If you want to know what's happening on the international car scene, Top Gear's got you covered.
As for Season 11, there are some classic installments here. The Alfa Romeo challenge is great, since it forces the host to put their own money where their love of the often-mocked Italian brand name is. The various tests each antique car much go through provides more than enough mechanical comedy. Similarly the Japanese Bullet Train race is wonderfully suspenseful. Top Gear has a habit of filming these long form pieces in such a way that you get instantly caught up in the goal, cheer on your favorite cast member (or mode of transportation) and sit on the edge of your seat waiting to see who wins. While perhaps not as compelling as the race to Norway (Season Six) or the amazing specials featuring treks across Africa and Vietnam, it's a blast. If there is a weak link here, it will be the whole "Stars in the Reasonably Priced Car" segment. Many of the names and faces are totally unfamiliar to Americans (we do see a couple of the entrepreneurs from Dragon's Den, but that's about it) with very few celebrities outside the UK being featured. Granted, that's the show's main audience, but like the political references in a classic Monty Python sketch, these luminaries fly right over the stateside head.
And that's the final thing that needs to be said about Top Gear—it HATES America. No, not the country or its people or its roadways or its syndication deals. No, it HATES American cars. Hammond owns an amped up Mustang and he is endlessly—ENDLESSLY- mocked for it. From bad gas mileage to constant breakdowns and repairs, you'd swear the United States has never made a decent automobile (and Top Gear would probably agree). This is a very Eurocentric show, catering to vehicles and variety types that are sometimes exclusive to the continent. There are also some oddities one has to surf through before getting totally comfortable with the show. Britain has a lot of overly restrictive laws. Cars must be modified for maximum top speeds. Licenses must be obtained to travel in certain parts of the country. Roadwork and warning signs can be more intrusive than constructive. Clarkson and the crew complain about these facets constantly, and while they offer some intriguing insight into life across the pond, it will still feel "foreign" to most. If you simply sit back and let the beaming buoyancy of the hosts wash over you, however, all of the befuddling, bumbling bureaucracy and English eccentricity won't really matter.
BBC Home Video does a decent job with this two DVD set. While there are no bonus features (BOO! HISS!!!) there is an excellent 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image. Like most TV in England, the series is indeed produced in a theatrical aspect ratio and it's great to be able to experience it that way on the home video format. Similarly, these are uncut episodes, meaning that all the material excised to settle into a BBC America time slot is back—and its interesting viewing. There is more news, more celebrity chit-chat—even a few new insights during the challenges. Add in a wonderfully evocative Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix (which brings the various ambient and electronica used as backup for each segment to assured sonic life) and you have a decent digital package. The lack of any added content, however, will be troubling to true Top Gear fans (like yours truly).
As BBC America prepares to air the 14th series of Top Gear (featuring an electric car building contest and a four wheel drive, 1000 mile journey through the rainforests of Bolivia), it's fun to look back at previous seasons of this snarky UK car show. It definitely delivers the goods when it comes to information and critical consumer breakdowns. It features fabulous looking, futuristic vehicles that many if not all of us will never be able to drive (or afford, frankly) in our lifetime. The hosts are genial, jovial blokes who know they're damn lucky to be indulging in their favorite fuel-injected pastime. And for all its slick and highly-produced polish, this is a down to Earth and quite funny show. Once again, the British prove that they can make Masterpiece Theater out of machines, manifolds, and MPH. Top Gear is terrific, and that's no tame traction control.
Not Guilty—Give me MORE! MORE POWER! MOOOOOORE OF THAT!!!!
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