by Jodi Gillich
I never thought I would watch a show about cars. This is not a gender thing – “girls just aren’t into cars,” some people incorrectly assume – it’s a ‘me’ thing. I started watching Top Gear about a year ago, and have been amazed ever since.
A product of the BBC, Top Gear debuted in 1977. In 2002, the show was revamped and presented in a new hour-long format. On topgear.com, Top Gear’s ‘legend’ goes like this: “Enter a world where man, machine and mayhem meet. Sit back, strap in and enjoy the shameless buffoonery we call Top Gear.”
This “shameless buffoonery” takes a backseat to the first and very best thing about Top Gear, which is an honest and unbiased look at motor vehicles and people. Since the BBC is largely subsidized by the British government, there are next to no worries about advertising or sponsorship influence (or they just don’t care).
According to wikipedia.org, Top Gear has about 350 million viewers around the world. And we can’t all be wrong.
Top Gear has unavoidably likeable hosts. There’s Jeremy Clarkson – witty and impulsive, he likes fast, powerful cars as much as he likes using his journalistic skills to put out books. Richard Hammond – known for his ineffable, charming personality as much as his close brush with death after a jet car crash – is usually the butt of a well-placed ‘short person’ joke from Clarkson, and James May – called “Captain Slow” by Clarkson and Hammond – is a quiet, neat guy who prefers his cars refined and classic. Finally, there’s The Stig, Top Gear’s mysterious racing dynamo. The Stig appears in every episode and is always masked in a racing suit and helmet to conceal his identity. And yet, while The Stig does not speak (or make any sudden movements, for that matter), he is incorporated into the team seamlessly.
Most of the car shows I’ve seen in the past have dedicated entire segments to a bikini contest, or something along those lines (which really belongs in a show about cars, I suppose…?). Subsequently, I felt very isolated from car culture both because this did not appeal to me and it reinforced my stereotype of people who were ‘into cars.’
When I watched Top Gear for the first time, I was surprised to see as many women as men in the studio audience, and they were all sensibly dressed. There were no comments, no insinuations about women. I started to believe that I – myself – could be ‘into cars.’
From that first viewing, I learned that it is the subtleties of Top Gear that make it brilliant. And in the hands of professionals, as Hammond said about the Vauxhall Minaro’s ability to drift, “it is great.” This includes gifted writing, outstanding editing, creative photography, an intelligent disdain for all things American (with the exception of Clarkson’s fondness for the Ford GT or Top Gear’s love-hate relationship with the Dodge Challenger), and the unassuming effectiveness of British humour.
Another nice thing about being part of the BBC is the travel budget. Clarkson, Hammond, May and The Stig venture around the world in an hour. After all, the rest of Europe is only a Chunnel away from Great Britain. Let’s face it, a trip to Alberta or Manitoba just doesn’t seem as thrilling as a jaunt to France or Italy.
As with most successful U.K. shows, the United States will probably try to remake it. Top Gear – or Top Speed as it might be called in the U.S.A. – has an ace up their sleeves, however. It will be impossible to outplay, outwit or outlast the subtleties, the talent and the heart that is Top Gear.