Jeremy Clarkson is to iconoclasm what Charlie Parker was to the alto sax. Britain’s premier automotive journalist for close to four decades, its not his knowledge of cars that has won him both legions of fans and equal number of detractors. Indeed, his automotive expertise is often laughably limited. (As he’s fond of reminding us, he has no idea what torque is.) Rather, it’s his merciless wit which he employs as the Times of London’s auto critic and, more popularly, as the lead host of BBC’s Top Gear, the most popular show in the UK. His is the epitome of opinion. What he loves (swoopy Italian supercars, cigarettes, classic rock) is as well known as what he loathes (American cars, American roads, Americans). He’s a devotee of speed (or “POWERRR!” as he purrs while powersliding around the test track) yet chides Porsches as too sterile. He so adores Margaret Thatcher and her pugilistic foreign policy he listens to tapes of her Falklands era speeches while driving, yet detests U.S. meddling in the Middle East. He stands a wide-shouldered six and half feet, yet his greying basset hound face inspires both laughter and pity. Clarkson’s Top Gear co-hosts, the diminutive, puckish Richard Hammond and droll technophile James May, regularly cut him down to size with the dry take-no-prisoners interplay the show is renown for. But Clarkson remains the show’s guiding star, its lightning rod and mission statement in human form. Because make no mistake, despite all the roaring motors and smoking rubber, Top Gear is the closest thing television has ever come to the Algonquin Round Table. Even car haters tune in just to watch Jeremy Clarkson and his cohorts one-up each other in verbal jousting.
History Channel’s Top Gear USA has no Jeremy Clarkson. Instead, it has rally driver Tanner Foust, comic Adam Ferrara, and…Rutledge Wood, whose qualifications I’ve still yet to determine. He’s tall, bearded and Southern, so maybe that’s all the qualifications History Channel needed. Of the three, Foust is clearly the most car savvy and the best driver. He’s not much on personality (he never hosts the celebrity interview/test lap segments) but how many TV hosts can coach a blind man to win a drifting contest? I remember Adam Ferrara from too many late-90’s Comedy Central standup specials, and he’s just as unfunny now as he was when making Monica Lewinsky jokes at Caroline’s. He clearly knows nothing about cars other than the fact they have four wheels and a motor, and even that knowledge seems second hand. But like Rutledge Wood, he is gregarious and seems relatively comfortable doing the celebrity interviews. Wood likes to smile, drive fast and remind the audience he’s from south of the Mason Dix, but he has yet to prove he’s in the same driving league as Foust, let alone the hosts of the British show. Put it this way: his dream car is a Dodge Challenger R/T, which would Jeremy Clarkson would sooner lie down in front of before getting behind the wheel.
Aside from the hosts – and that’s a very big aside – Top Gear USA is pretty much a carbon copy of the orignal. The show usually opens with a test of a new performance car such as an Aston Martin Vantage or Porsche Panamera, followed by their “unseen” race driver The Stig putting the vehicle through a punishing test lap. Then comes a long featured segment, such as a race from Miami to Key West between a cigarette boat, a seaplane and a new Lotus, or the hosts putting three old GM cars through a series of grueling tests to determine which one the auto giant should put back into production. Then there’s the aforementioned celebrity bit, known as Big Star in a Small Car, where someone like Michelle Rodriguez or Bret Michaels tells their favorite car stories before whipping a dinky Suzuki around the test track in a timed lap. To my surprise, this season’s best guest was Detroit native Kid Rock whose grasp of Motor City lore should make the producers reconsider bringing him back to host if there’s a second season. Anyway, the American show hews so closely to the British model, the intent is obviously to win over those fervid fans of the original.
But this brings us back to the issue of Jeremy Clarkson and, well, his not being here. As stated, he is Top Gear. And no matter how entertaining the Yank version often is – it’s hard to go wrong with fast cars and high speed challenges – it’s just not the same no matter how much they try to make us think it is. Hell, it even uses the same Allman Brothers tune over the opening. I’m not NOT recommending it. I’m just saying don’t expect the original.
As I’ve written earlier, my own affairs are so up in the air I need the damn Hubble scope to see ‘em. But if time permits, my next review will be of F/X’s brilliant spy comedy Archer. Eat up!