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Monday, July 18, 2011


The original British version of the TV series "Top Gear" was so popular that the BBC decided to create different incarnations of it for different countries, a la "Wheel of Fortune."  Getting an American copy off the ground proved a bit difficult, though, but after a couple of false starts, the History Channel aired the first episode of the Yank-based "Top Gear" on November 21, 2010.  The first ten installments are now available from BBC Worldwide Productions in the 3-disc DVD set, TOP GEAR: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON, and if you already like the British show then there's no reason why this one shouldn't pop your clutch as well.

While I missed original hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, the new guys are a likable bunch who get better as they grow more comfortable on the show.  Their studio segments are a bit stiff at first, with the audience reacting to their lame one-liners with mercy laughter.  But as they start getting used to each other and working more smoothly as a comedy team, things get more lighthearted and fun.  By the second or third episode, the trio of racing champion Tanner Foust, auto racing analyst Rutledge Wood, and actor-comedian Adam Ferrara are firing on all cylinders.

The chief trait shared by all three of these disparate personalities, of course, is an undying love of cars.  The show features a stunning array of the world's most incredible supercars by manufacturers such as Lamborghini, Ferrari, Aston-Martin, Porsche, and many others, and the giddy hosts can't wait to get behind the wheels of these dream machines and take them out for some intensive test drives.  It's easy to share their excitement as they careen around spacious airfields or go for top speeds in places like the Mojave Desert.  These guys know cars, and are able to evaluate the pros and cons of each model even as they lose themselves in the abandon of auto ecstasy in machines that cost up to $250,000.

As in the British version, each episode features regular segments such as "Big Star, Small Car."  Here, celebrity guests are interviewed before the studio audience gets to see video of their lap around the Top Gear track in a Suzuki SX4 Sportback.  Season one's guests include Tony Hawk, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Kid Rock, Tim Allen, Michelle Rodriguez, Ty Burrell, Bret Michaels, and LORD OF THE RINGS' Dominic Monaghan, all vying to see who can get the fastest time.  The show's enigmatic resident race car driver The Stig, whose face is never shown, also takes some of the show's supercars for a spin around the track. 

My favorite part of "Top Gear", without a doubt, is the challenges.  The first episode gets things off to an exciting start with "Cobra Attack", in which two of the hosts race from Point A to Point B in a Dodge Viper SRT-10 while being stalked from the air by a Cobra attack helicopter.  In another segment, co-host Tanner Roust has to give lessons in "drifting" (letting the back wheels slide from side to side during turns) to a blind man until he's ready to undertake a series of tests that had me on the edge of my seat.  Roust also gets to drive the Ford F-150 SVT VelociRaptor in a cross-country race across the desert against a HALO parachutist as he plummets downward toward the same destination. 

The show gets down to some serious fun when the hosts are tasked to take the wheel of some not-so-cherry used cars and put them through a series of punishing tests.  Each host invariably chooses a car that reflects his personality while often serving as an object of derision by the others, as in Rutledge Wood's selection of the Buick Roadmaster in the "Beater Boot Camp" episode.

Adam Ferrara's massive Cadillac Coupe DeVille also comes in for some jibes in "Flying Coupe DeVille", in which the boys make like old-time moonshiners evading the law.  This segment climaxes with a lap around a moto-cross track for each car, with Ferrara's land yacht executing a thrillingly ill-advised ramp jump that turns it into a canoe.  This was one of the moments that had me laughing out loud and rewinding the DVD.  Another such moment is when Tanner literally bails out of his car during a failed emergency-brake test and it rolls backward down the hill, making a couple of perfect turns on its own that cause it to plow right into Ferrara's Caddy.

Some of the more frenetic challenges have an "Amazing Race" quality to them and are intensely fun, even when some of the action seems staged.  By the later episodes the guys have a casual interplay going on that includes plenty of practical jokes and some ruthless competitiveness.  The penultimate show of the season (episode ten is a clip show) takes them to Alaska for a real cross-country automotive ordeal in some breathtakingly beautiful locations, with each host driving a used truck purchased sight-unseen online.  When Rutledge's snug little log-cabin camper (which he loves) bounces out of his truck during some rough going, Tanner is only too happy to plow right through it and reduce it to firewood.  All in good fun, of course.

The 3-disc, 10-episode DVD set from BBC is in 16:9 with Dolby stereo and English subtitles.  The episode "Alaska Special - America's Toughest Truck" features a breezy commentary track with the guys.  Disc three also includes several behind-the-scenes webisodes and an informal poolside chat in which our hosts just yak about whatever enters their pointy little heads for about half an hour.

After watching season 13 of the British show and enjoying it very much, I have to say that for me the USA version of "Top Gear" is just as much fun.  Foust, Wood, and Ferrara may not have had thirteen seasons to hone their act, but they're on the right track.  You don't even have to be all that into cars to like TOP GEAR: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON--the automotive love shared by everyone involved with the show is infectious. 

Release date: July 19

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