Poowweerr! Or Why I’m Addicted to a BBC Motoring Show

I’ve spent the last six hours watching old episodes of Top Gear on Netflix, and I just thought to question: why is it that my attention span (not the greatest on my best days) allows me to have the same show on, for hours? The answer, it seems, lies in the question.

When Top Gear returned in its new format in 2002, it brought with it a range of talent and a change in direction. It’s as if Clarkson, et al asked “how can we make a show about cars, but not about cars?” It turns out the answer is a complicated formula that involves insanity, hilarity, challenges, and 3 presenters who, against all odds, have fantastic chemistry. I doubt that those involved in re-imaging Top Gear ever suspected that it would have reached the success it currently has, nor would they have believed it if someone had told them that they’d still be on a decade later. Yet, here they are… and if the rest of the Top Gear fandom is anything like me, the wait between series is often unacceptable, and when that first episode finally premiers it’s like Christmas, graduation and your birthday have come all on the same day.

The reason Top Gear appreciates such success is simply the nature of the programming… it’s often times crude, ostentatious, arrogant, and pious… but that’s part of its charm. It’s ironic that a show about cars could garner such a huge following, but in a way it makes sense. Because, although the show is about cars, it’s also not about cars at all. Rather, it’s a show that embraces an entire culture surrounding motoring, is distinctively British, and spends a good deal of time messing about (which, as Richard Hammond reminded viewers in Series 15, is something the British are very good at).

There has been some criticism of the show, particularly by those who believe that the presenters play into their Top Gear “characters,” and that the format has become too predictable.. but I disagree. Of course the public personalities of three men of three different ages, who’ve spent a great deal of their adult life in television/radio, would not necessary be their actual personalities. Of course they’ve created a part… albeit one that is probably quite close to their actual selves. The problem isn’t that the show has become “too predictable,” rather it’s a formula that seems to be working. There are certain things about Top Gear that make it so beloved… including car vs. public transport races, cheap car challenges, and ‘build it’ challenges. Predictable? No… it’s simply part of the magic sauce that makes Top Gear informative, hilarious and ridiculous… which has gained them incredible ratings, and a few awards, over the last decade. So while any show that has been on television for this long will have its critics, to the critics of Top Gear I say “bet you can’t do it better.”

Top Gear‘s popularity is a direct result of its magic sauce, and I doubt if even the presenters would be able to tell you exactly what that was. Much like movie script writers, it’s impossible to know what will work with the public at any given time, and what won’t… and just like Doctor Who, for Top Gear to be able to span a decade, and still receive huge praise and massive ratings, shows that something’s working. A critic’s job is to be pessimistic, but in reality it’s the fans whose continued praise and optimism means more to the success, or failure, of a show than what The Guardian has to say about it.

I confess that I, more often than not, fast forward through the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car segment. While I appreciate it for what it is, I simply find it an unnecessary part of my addiction. What I need is fast cars, ridiculous challenges, home made amphibious cars, the Hammerhead Eagle i-Thrust Geoff, and Oliver. I, like many people, have my favourite episodes that I harken back to when I need cheering up, or that one episode that helps me study best, or the one I can watch to forget about the world for an hour. In essence, it’s the show’s ability to make fans want to re-watch episodes over and over that makes it so endearing, and enduring.

There have been several versions of Top Gear made in several different countries, but none have even come close to the success that Top Gear UK has experienced… and the reason for this is the same reason movie sequels tend to fail: nothing is as good as the original. There will never be a version of Top Gear that is as successful as the original, simply because that magic formula will have been changed. I, for one, hope that Top Gear UK lasts for many decades. Realistically I know that is unlikely, so I shall savour each and every episode as if it is to be the last, and return to the beginning when the wait between series becomes unbearable, and the need arises to squelch the withdrawal symptoms that is the Top Gear addiction.

[Top Gear airs Sunday nights on BBC2 in Britain, and at various times on BBCAmerica, Dave and BBCCanada. Series 2-17 are currently on Netflix Instant Watch]

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