Language is a tricky beast to master. I don’t mean learn vocabulary or verb conjugations: you can memorize those. No, to truly master a language requires something beyond knowing how to pronounce shit. I feel that the best way to determine if someone’s able to properly speak in a different language, is if they use idioms correctly. Doing so requires roughly the same level of cultural understanding as knowing that roughly 80% of what Australians tell non-Aussies is pure BS. It’s why it’s so hard to dub anime. The hard part isn’t figuring out the English translation of the words, it’s when you get to a cultural reference or a specific phrase that doesn’t quite work if you’re not in Japan. Hell, just look at English: we here in the good ol’ US of A haven’t got a word for “fortnight”.
It may be 1 AM as I write the first draft of this post, but my ramblings do eventually converge on a point: certain aspects of culture are difficult to move from one country to the next. Much like a ripe mango, some things can be difficult to transport. Like, for instance, a car-based TV show.
Yes, Top Gear USA is, for the moment, no more. The History Channel has not renewed the show for an additional season, probably because they needed the budget to give that one guy from Ancient Aliens some hair gel that actually works. Regardless, after the Cuba episode, the series will officially come to an end (for now). Which is unfortunate, as TG USA was currently enjoying what is perhaps its best season yet.
And so, I’m sad. Not just because car shows on TV are dropping faster than the post-Brexit stock market, but because for a long time, the USA version of the venerable British cultural juggernaut never got the respect I think it deserved all along. Too often are those who attempt to learn a foreign language paralyzed by fear of embarrassment and judgment. Yeah, it’s easy to point and laugh when someone haltingly attempts to purchase groceries, but that helps no one, and only discourages others from trying in the first place; those brave souls should be honored and aided for their drive. So please, join me in a look at what Tanner Foust, Rutledge Wood, and Adam Ferrara brought to the viewing table.
One of the biggest criticisms of the show, at least in the early episodes, is that they were basically just copying the British version. They had a News segment, they did Power Laps with the Stig, they had a Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car, the whole shebang.
Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but plagiarization? Well, not quite. Top Gear is in the name of the show, so it’s only natural that, in the absence of any real predecessors in terms of TV car shows, the USA team decided to draw from Jeremy’s, James’, and Richard’s bag of gimmicks. Plus, the BBC did technically own anything with the Top Gear name in it, so they probably had a hand in the show’s initial direction. We shouldn’t judge too hard, though: name another car-based show in the past decade that was on the same level of exposure and public consciousness. As is often the case in many fields, you have to start with what you know. Plus, they had Buzz freakin’ Aldrin on as a guest—I’m surprised the Reasonably-Priced Car could accommodate his massive brass ones.
After a while, though, The Guys found their groove outside the studio, in the vast and varied landscape of the US and the world. And this in medias res was, I feel, perfectly suited to the American take on Top Gear, or at least, perfect for Tanner, Rutledge, and Adam. Let’s face it, by the time the BBC launched modern Top Gear in 2002, Jeremy, Richard, and James were all trained journalists and presenters. In a way, the studio setting was perfect for them. By contrast, of the US hosts, only Rutledge had any significant broadcasting experience: Tanner may have a vibrant personality, but he’s a racing driver first and foremost, not a reporter; Adam is a comedian, and thus used to baring himself (so to speak) in front of people, but again, not really in the same vein as the lads from Britain.
Plus, by being unbound from a studio, the hosts could basically turn any given episode into what would be, on British Top Gear, a special. The Guys crossed the Continental Divide in minivans, braved Alaska in used pickups, and in this last episode, were perhaps the first TV hosts to catch a glimpse at the previously guarded automotive culture of Cuba. And these are just some of the examples of the next thing that made US Top Gear great.
Everyone remembers Jezza’s drive of the Ariel Atom, Captain Slow’s record-shattering Bugatti runs, and Richard’s heart-stopping dragster accident. These are iconic moments from a global phenomenon. Well, in its own way, TG USA had moments just as special.
I present, for your consideration, Adam’s Season 1 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
I can’t watch that clip without channeling Adam Savage, giggling like a ticklish 5-year-old into my coffee cup, “We broke stuff.” And unlike the pickups crossing the Channel, this was a completely unmodified car.
And again, that suits the audience. Let’s face it, British Top Gear may have been all about the love of motoring, but some of the challenges and things they did were not something most people could do. By contrast, I can’t think of a single challenge on American Top Gear that was drastically unrealistic.
Rutledge tried to use a Miata as a truck substitute—naturally, seeing as he’s a Jalopnik contributor—and (more recently) a Toyobaru as a city car, which eventually lead to him, in the words of Tanner Foust, “molesting a bear”. Adam used an ambulance as a taxi, and never seemed to find a challenge that couldn’t be solved with a late 70s/early 80s Cadillac. And Tanner? He crossed the Rockies with a manual Ford Aerostar, and, in true Top Gear-style, bought the only Datsun 240Z that didn’t work.
And I haven’t even mentioned the Military Challenge episode, which ended up with Rutledge in a pink Ram Power Wagon, Tanner racing around in a WRX STI, and Adam using veggies as camo for a Wrangler.
And all this was made possible because of the same thing that made Top Gear work in the first place: chemistry.
Let’s be honest, the newest main hosts of Top Gear, Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc, do NOT work well together. Jeremy, Richard, and James, though, did and still do. And that was the big drawing point for a lot of viewers. They weren’t just any three middle-aged old men doddering around with cars, they were three old bros doddering around with cars.
To be honest, at first the hosts of American Top Gear didn’t have that same level of connection. They were nowhere near as awkward as Matt and Chris were, but when we first met them they were more like pleasantly acquainted co-workers than bros. But after a time, that changed.
They had their own in-jokes: Adam calling Tanner “Tiny Dancer”, both of them making fun of Rutledge’s penchant for hipster-esque wear, Rutledge and Tanner mocking Adam for his New-York-isms. They bickered and talked like friends, and then like old friends. They might not have had the same number of years that The Lads had, but that same kind of friendship was there. And you can bet it’ll continue even after the cameras have stopped rolling.
So there you have it. Top Gear USA, a show that has left us just when it was gathering some real steam. But there’s always hope—just look at The Grand Tour. So I won’t say goodbye just yet. Instead, let me stay thanks, to you, Tanner, Rutledge, and Adam. Thank you for all the laughs, the heart-stopping moments, and the genuine love of all things cars. May we see you on our screens soon.