Top Gear USA: Lost in Translation?

Britain and the US are often called two nations divided by a common language. British culture, particularly television doesn’t always click with American audiences and adaptations of British series for US television often lose much of the charm of the original in attempting to broaden appeal for us Yanks. (The Office is one of the rare exceptions where the adaptation is worth watching.)
Top Gear has a huge following worldwide because it completely reinvented the way of making a show about cars. Instead of simply reviewing cars, like PBS’s Motorweek, the BBC’s Top Gear aims to make an entertaining show that involves cars and occasionally actually reviews cars.
The strong personality of lead presenter Jeremy Clarkson dominates Top Gear. He’s big, loud, brash and has his own iconoclastic point of view. Any adapatation of Top Gear is going to come up short in finding a host as fitting for the role as Clarkson and also in replicating the chemistry between Clarkson and his co-presenters. The curmudgeonly and vaguely artsy James May represents the opposite brained approach to Clarkson’s while Richard Hammond is the affable everyman, usually standing in as the voice of reason.
Because Top Gear is on public broadcaster, it is not beholden to advertisers and the show isn’t afraid to review cars poorly. In fact, the show relishes in trashing cars (both critically and literally.) Top Gear is so far off-brand (and expensive) for American PBS, it might have to be watered down for broadcast or basic cable to appease advertisers.
But as great and as British Top Gear is, an American Top Gear could be even better. Clarkson, Hammond, May and The Stig revel in speed, power and destruction — all things that we do better in America. America has a rich car culture to draw on. While Britain’s nanny state mentality towards auto regulation and congestion pricing provide targets for Clarkson to demonize and rail against, there’s enough of that in America to use as a scapegoat, but there’s also a freer spirit of American motoring.
From the sizzle reel showed at the top of the show, it looks like the History Channel’s Top Gear is going to be borrowing liberally from the BBC’s archive of challenges. The big film of the first episode pitted a Dodge Viper against a Cobra attack helicopter, in a film inspired by Clarkson’s review of the Lotus Exige pitted against a Apache helicopter gunship. Top Gear USA will subject some of Detroit’s finest creations to the British Leyland water challenge. And that could be a good thing, because the American iteration of the challenges may well be bigger than the British originals. But although this one was nicely filmed, it didn’t really bring anything new to the table. And while the British version highlighted how nimble the Exige is, the US take showed that the Dodge Viper is powerful and clumsy. It might be that the US version may be trying to force square pegs into round holes in order to fit into the Top Gear template rather than create films and challenges that are truly American.
But that’s the nature of the adaptation process. The pilot episode of the US Office was a near line for line rehash of the UK Office’s pilot. And the reason that the US version is a success is because of how quickly it stepped away from that. Steve Carrell plays with Michael Scott a naivete that runs counter to David Brent’s malicious streak. Top Gear US will have to find its own identity. It will retain the lavish cinematography that makes it identifiably Top Gear, but hopefully find a viewpoint that reflects its place in American car culture.
A big part of that is developing the hosts’ on-screen personas. It took some time for Top Gear to develop the chemistry between its three presenters; James May didn’t even come in to the show until the second season. Fortunately, the US hosts aren’t simply aping the personalities of the British hosts. In fact, they’re going for a completely different paradigm, which gives me hope that Top Gear USA can find its way.
But what does Top Gear have to do with history? Given that one of the other History Channel shows advertised during Top Gear was Ice Road Truckers, does the History Channel show any programming that’s related to history in any way whatsoever? If Top Gear is a breakout success, how long will it be before the History Channel goes through some kind of SyFy-like rebranding?
To adapt a beloved, original show is always a challenge between maintaining the elements that work and not simply copying for the sake of copying. There has to be a reason for making the adaptation. The US version can in fact have a reason for existing and after the first episode is not a complete embarassment. Which is probably a passing grade.
Tim Goodman, The Hollywood Reporter, Top Gear — TV Review “The two most important things to know about History Channel’s American import of the British sensation ‘Top Gear’: First, no, it’s not as good as the original. Second, the new version does not — in the parlance of those worried souls who keep asking — suck.”
Jalopnik, First Drive: Top Gear USA “It’s stretching the capabilities of understatement to say that the domestic edition of Top Gear has a great deal of work cut out for it. The original BBC production is a bona-fide sensation, a hit with people who don’t even like cars. At its best, it’s pitch-perfect, with the casual banter between the hosts, the high production values, and the obvious love of everything automotive combining into something really magic. It’s lightning in a bottle, and there’s really nothing else like it. Except now, of course, the History Channel is trying to make something just like it. And judging from the three episodes we saw, they certainly have their work cut out for them.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *