Ever since my 5th Christmas day, half of which I spent happily getting in everyone’s way as I broke in my brand new Scalextric set, I’ve been interested in cars. I’ve been playing racing games, watching F1, WRC and various other things for many years. I also enjoy driving, even though my experience is limited to my little 1.2 Corsa, a few other hatchbacks, my Dad’s Volvo and my first car; an ancient Peugeot 106 that screamed for mercy when you took it past 50.
My interest in cars and driving is what initially drew me into watching Top Gear, but now the two seem to barely connect. This might seem a little odd, since on paper Top Gear is entirely based around automotive news and interests, but the general consensus is that it hasn’t actually been a car show for many years. So where does the appeal come from?
It certainly doesn’t emanate from the charisma of the presenters, that’s for sure. The way they play off each other during their carefully constructed banter sessions is always amusing, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that Jeremy Clarkson is a tool, Richard Hammond is little more than an irritating remora hanging off Clarkson’s thigh and James May is… actually I quite like James May. They’re not even really themselves anymore: in the earlier series, you sometimes got the sense that their interactions had an element of genuine personality, but now they’re all just caricatures. In the most recent episode, Clarkson and Hammond chastise May for suggesting that horse power figures are sometimes ultimately irrelevant to the quality of a car. The real Clarkson probably agrees but Top Gear Clarkson doesn’t, he’s far too stubborn to ever agree with anyone else. I suppose it’s a logical progression but I preferred it when there was at least the vaguest pretense that you were watching real people being themselves.
In terms of actual content, any predisposition towards realism is long gone. They don’t even pretend that any of the ridiculous things that happen in their flagship ‘ambitious but rubbish’ endeavors really happened, any chance of that burned away with that caravan they ‘accidentally’ torched all those years ago. I suppose it’s a credit to the show that they don’t patronize their audience and that they embrace the absurdity of it all but I still find myself enjoying their old cheap car tests, when they just drove around the UK breaking down constantly, more than any of the more recent grandiose fare. The tests are the only really consistent factor of Top Gear: they were irrelevant then and they’re irrelevant now. It’s very rare that any actual consumer advice finds its way into a show, it’s normally just one of the presenters screwing around in a pointless car that you could never hope to afford.
So with all this negativity, the question remains: why am I still watching it every week? Why is anyone? Possibly, it’s just because there’s entertainment to be drawn from absurdity. Stuart Heritage recently observed in The Guardian that the show had essentially become a cartoon, which kind of puts it in the same purview as Jackass (of which I am also a big fan): here are some silly people doing silly things, hi-jinks ensue. Beyond that though, I think there’s a great deal of appeal in just how beautifully put together it often is, the cinematography is often excellent, the editing and sound design are equally so and the soundtrack is an ever-reliable, well-researched playlist of fantastically atmospheric music. Granted, certain pieces are perhaps lent on a little too heavily (Tron Legacy score, I’m looking at you), but it allows some really diverse and interesting music access to the ears of millions. In the most recent episode alone we were treated to work from Amon Tobin and excerpts from Thomas Newman’s gorgeous score from Road to Perdition, and Clint Mansell’s equally gorgeous score from Mass Effect 3.
If you couple the quality of the presentation with some of the footage they capture in breathtaking locations across the world, you’ve got some very special film-making. All of Top Gear’s foreign specials are essential viewing, and the trip to Chernobyl and Pripyat in a recent episode was perfectly toned and a deeply ominous example of how absorbing the show can be when it allows itself to take a more serious tone. The beauty of this is that it’s offset by everything else; with the typically consistent tone of silliness, any time the presenters take a break to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings you know that it’s genuine. Really then, Top Gear’s appeal comes from its aesthetic and absurdity in equal measure. It’s An Idiot Abroad without the irony, or Jackass without the daredevilry, and it has almost nothing to do with cars. Is it guilty pleasure programming? Sure, but as long as it remains aware of that, the appeal will never fade.
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