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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Top Gear’ provides top tips

Published: March 14, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

With the change of the season, only one thing can be expected: a new series of “Top Gear.” Keeping with British television tradition, “Top Gear” presents new episodes on cars and motoring, usually around six or eight, two times a year. One of the most popular shows in the U.K., “Top Gear” has spawned spin-offs in numerous countries, including the U.S. None of these compare, however, to the quality and camaraderie of “Top Gear” U.K.’s three presenters: Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May.

Just as with any series of “Top Gear,” this latest one showcased a collection of high jinks and stunts aimed at impressing their primarily-male audience. Typical stuff from what is probably the most crass show on the BBC. I guess it would be expected that a show essentially focused on grease and brake-horsepower would be the least sophisticated, but it is still a completely different style of presenting than any American program targeted at the working class.

It could just be their British accents, but the main draw that has kept viewers watching is the amount of fun the presenters genuinely have with each other. The topics, reviews and challenges have gotten a bit stale as most interesting ideas that concern cars have already been covered. This season particularly relied too heavily on testing hot hatchbacks or just reviewing obnoxious vehicles in exotic locales that have no real relevance to a large majority of the viewers. Far too often the presenters were separated and forced to carry the segment by themselves. With segments covering how a six-wheeled Mercedes-Benz truck stands out among the Ferraris and Maseratis of the United Arab Emirates and a new coach-building company that customizes Alfa Romeos, “Top Gear” can get a bit tired out.

Yet this is the calling card of “Top Gear” and why people are so interested; they get a peek at luxurious automobiles they would otherwise not be able to access. The camera work adds the most to the overall presentation, with fantastic pan-outs of cars, action shots and establishing shots. That’s where “Top Gear” transforms itself to more than just a car show. While England is constantly mocked for its dreary weather and increasingly Orwellian policies, the presenters make a strong effort to travel around the continent and around the world, featuring Lake Como in Italy, the Ukraine (before all the protests and Russian invasion occurred) and Afghanistan.

The trip through Ukraine that Clarkson, Hammond and May took to prove to their producers that they loved compact cars over the oft-reviewed super cars was the most exhilarating portion of the series. After being forced to listen to self-help tapes during the trek across the fields of Ukraine, the presenters were presented with an interesting challenge. As compact cars are useful for their fuel efficiency, all three of their cars were filled with more than enough petrol to reach the border of Belarus. The problem, however, was that the route they were taking passed through Chernobyl. The presenters had to run out of fuel before they entered the danger zone, lest they wanted to be exposed to the radiation. They found ways to weigh down their vehicles, decrease the aerodynamics and just drive recklessly in order to drain fuel.

Then the annual Christmas special, which premiered this past week and finishes this upcoming Sunday night, covers long-distance lorry driving through Burma. Once again pitting the presenters against each other over weeks in a foreign land with trucks that are simply not suitable for the stress of driving over a thousand miles, this is where “Top Gear” shines. Sure, the show is scripted for most of the jokes and gags throughout the season, but when the presenters are out of their element, pure humanity comes through. Such as the part when Hammond sprained his wrist when the horse he was riding to get more fuel in the next village bucked him off while trying to mount May’s horse—you simply don’t find that in any other program on television.

Leaving viewers on a cliffhanger at the end of the first part of the Christmas special that aired over two months past the holiday, the presenters are preparing to head into the Shan State of Burma. A somewhat autonomous region that has been through civil war and isn’t exactly open to Westerners, “Top Gear” is breaking new ground by bringing cameras into the region. Teasing with a rambunctious party thrown by both sides of the conflict to welcome the Westerners to their homeland, the series finale promises to close on a bang, even though the rest of the series was lackluster, to say the least.