Top Gear America recently aired Episode 4, “Drive Your Life,” marking the half-way point through its inaugural eight-episode season. The new 2017 version of Top Gear America has come off with more of a fizzle than a bang with fans, who are still disappointed that the previous version of the show, which aired 72 episodes from 2010 to 2016, was unceremoniously cut right when it was finally getting good.
Top Gear USA via BBC America
The first version of Top Gear America never gained a major footing, however it did manage to get a respectable following as it averaged between 1-2 million viewers per episode. While the viewership numbers for the 2017 version of the show have yet to be published, the lack of attention the show is receiving from the media would seem to tell one all they need to know about the show’s success, or lack thereof.
The new 2017 version of the show is suffering from some pretty big issues; poor chemistry between the hosts, awful and awkward silences during the lap-time portions of the show, “C” level guest stars, a failure to utilize their borrowed British Stig appropriately, and more. However, the biggest issue with the new Top Gear America is that it has made the same mistake the Grand Tour made with the “American” character; it failed to provide the background of the characters before attempting lovable but antagonistic humor.
The American via The Grand Tour
Here is a new golden rule for automotive show producers: when the audience doesn’t know you as a person, antagonistic humor merely makes you look like a dick. And, there is nothing lovable about that.
The primary host is William Fichtner, a well-known and recognizable movie star. Fans either know him as a good guy or a villain, depending on which movies they have seen him in; but we have no idea why he would have been picked as the lead host for the new Top Gear America or what kind of person he is when not acting. The other two hosts, Tom “Wookie” Ford and Antron Brown, are complete unknowns. No doubt the google search numbers for these two went up during the airing of the show, as viewers were desperately trying to learn something about the new hosts.
Top Gear America hosts via BBC America
The show’s production editing isn’t helping either. For example, in Episode 4 we finally get to see what Antron Brown does for a living, which is to drive NHRA Top Fuel Dragsters. Antron accompanies Tom “Wookie” Ford to drag racing school where he helps to coach and guide the Wookie through a crash course on drag racing. Half way through the season, we finally get to see some great background on Antron Brown’s life and racing experience. Why wasn’t this aired in the first episode so we get to know one of our hosts?
Top Gear America Episode 4 via BBC America
The same thing occurred with Episode 2, “Movie Magic,” where we got to see some behind the scenes footage of the amazing cars used by the film crews. These custom cars utilize massive booms with stabilized cameras in order to get the amazing shots seen on the show. But did we get to see some behind the scenes “Movie Magic” from our movie star host, William Fichtner? No! We have Antron Brown and Tom “Wookie” Ford explaining the filming production process. What??? Why wasn’t the movie star host taking the opportunity to give his audience an insight into who he is and his exceptional career in the entertainment industry?
Top Gear America Episode 2 via BBC America
This leads us inevitably to Tom “Wookie” Ford, whom we still don’t know a single thing about. Every time he speaks it’s like listening to a blind date you have been set up with… you’re expected to be kind, listen to what is said, and find them interesting; but really you just don’t know them from Adam. If you Google Tom Ford’s biography, you will find that he has had an interesting carrier in England as an automotive journalist and television presenter for the BBC TV show Fifth Gear. Why have we not had a trip with the three hosts over to England so that we can get to know the life and career of our British host?
Antron Brown and Tom “Wookie” Ford on Top Gear America Episode 1 via BBC America
Perhaps it’s just me, but I have just about had it with these automotive TV show producers expecting us to just “like” the hosts and characters they force upon us. They should not expect us to instantly buy into a deep dynamic between the hosts that they have not taken even a moment of time to develop. The new Top Gear America really has no excuse for this oversight as they have a great Hollywood actor as its lead host.
I have two words for the production staff of Top Gear America: CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT!
Character development is a fundamental aspect of any story telling if you want your audience to care about the characters they are watching. This is especially true when you are trying to pull off complicated inter-personal jokes using antagonistic humor that the audience is supposed to emotionally understand.
Sundar Pichai via Business Insider
Producers listen up! It is a sign of failure if Google has to do your job and educate your audience on characters you present to them; especially your hosts! When this occurs, you have forever lost the moment to tell the story of your hosts to your audience in your voice, versus the random and potentially unflattering story Google is going to present!
As of Episode 4 in the new Top Gear America, the audience still only sees what Tom Ford accurately described in the opening monologue in Episode 1: “…three strangers that have been put together through a combination of circumstance and budgetary restriction.” Worse still, you have our unknown hosts playing mean jokes on each other and that just makes them all look like a bunch of dicks.
Keep driving my friends!
My thanks to Larry for all his help with this article.