The popular BBC series Top Gear began life in 1977 as a half-hour consumer-reports show, but really became a cultural force after it was revamped and expanded in 2002. The new hourlong Top Gear still leads viewers through the pros and cons of various luxury autos and “reasonably priced cars,” but it sports a different tone and attitude, closer to American sports-talk than a detached infomercial. Presenter Jeremy Clarkson and his two co-hosts, Richard Hammond and James May (the latter started in 2003), banter with each other and with their celebrity guests about the handling and special features of various cars, and their conversations are charmingly informal, filled with good-natured ribbing and lusty salivating over—or spitting on—motor vehicles.
The six episodes on the Top Gear 11 DVD set and the seven episodes (plus two specials) on the Top Gear 12 DVD set are addictive entertainment, even though nothing much changes from hour to hour. Clarkson and company rag on each other a bit, then introduce a video package where they test out a “supercar.” Then there’s more ragging and more video packages, often featuring a mysterious, helmeted test-driver known as “The Stig.” Somewhere in the midst of all that, Clarkson chats up a celeb—a British celeb, usually—and the boys concoct and execute ridiculous challenges. In one episode, they supply five different cars with a gallon of petrol each and then see how far they run at top speed; in another, they test-drive muscle cars on a road trip from San Francisco to Bonneville; in another, they power a blender with a Corvette engine and make a smoothie out of beef and brick; and so on. The program combines a little Mythbusters, a little travelogue, and a whole lot of guys being guys.
The Top Gear crew can be obnoxious. Their driving habits are atrocious, their relentless slagging of economy cars borders on the irresponsible, their travel packages are often smugly ethnocentric, and their mockery of their BBC bosses and fellow presenters makes them prime candidates for what Monty Python would call “The Upper-Middle-Class Twit Of The Year.” But at least they’re unapologetic twits. There’s an element of self-awareness to Clarkson’s shtick. It isn’t that he’s insincere, he just seems to know—and not care—that his brazen opinions are bound to rub some people the wrong way. And frankly, it’s refreshing to hear TV personalities say outright that a consumer product is “rubbish,” without fear of reprisal from their network’s ad-sales department. It’s also fun to watch Clarkson and cohorts play to their audience (both at home and gathered en masse in their enormous studio), by feeding the fantasy that we all know what it’s like to take a Lamborghini out for a spin at 100 mph, then bitch about the cornering.
Key features: None on the two-disc set of the 11th series; the four-disc set of the 12th series adds deleted scenes, special episodes shot in Vietnam and Botswana, and commentary tracks on those special episodes.