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Top Gear Australia – reconsidered

November 19, 2008

The first season of Top Gear Australia has… taken the chequered flag?  Is that a motor-y type of pun?  I have spent altogether too much time trying to think of something car-related to complete a sentence about the end of the show.  That the result was so lame matches the tone, in a way, of the whole of this just-ended first run.

I tried to like TGA.  Then I tried not to hate it.  Now my only regret is that I don’t have the satisfaction of having dumped it before it dumped me.  Last Monday’s episode was, I decided, the last one I would watch.  Finding out at episode’s end that it was the last one I could watch (for the year, at least) left me feeling bitter.

As I mentioned in my initial response to the show, I am not a “car person”, so perhaps it was ridiculous to expect that I had enough enthusiasm in me for a second car show.  Perhaps I should have been happy enough with the anomaly that is my affection for Top Gear.  Perhaps I should have stopped watching after episode two when I realised that trying to like something was not the same as actually liking it; that switching TGA off had no implication beyond freeing me up to watch the 7:30 Report (and still check in on Idol eliminations).

So, what was it I disliked about TGA?  Some of my negative reactions to the local version really don’t bear close analysis.  I was pissed off at the pointlessness of an Australian car show, when this market consists almost entirely of fully imported cars and the increasingly taxpayer-subsidised local manufacture of overseas cars.  Then again, the same could be said of the British show (although I don’t know the extent to which the British government props up the industry), yet that didn’t bother me at all; it certainly didn’t sour  my enjoyment of the original show.  In fact, the perception of shared pointlessness is a key argument against this show: conditions for both are so similar, why replicate them locally?  Just add an Australian dollar conversion sheet to the Top Gear website, along with any changed specs or altered availability.  Easy.  Oh, and broadcast the original as it’s released in the UK, instead of years after.  Watching the local show, I’d be annoyed that cars were celebrated for being capable of speeds well above the legal driving limits in this country.  Once again, this happens all the time in the British show and it does not enrage me (although I’ve never heard Clarkson, Hammond or May break the “fourth wall” by stating – as Steve Pizzati did – that the top speed of a certain car was really academic as a driver would be pinged for taking it 3kph above half its maximum.  This really rang the pointless! alarm loudly.  Oh, and at least Clarkson et al get to drive really fast, legally, in Europe).

Whilst it’s possible that the new production was given strict guidelines from the franchise owner, and that a formula had been developed, the heaviness of the delivery was a turn-off.  Okay, so they had their “Stig”.  Maybe they had to have their Stig.  Did they have to adopt, holus bolus, the “some say…” style of Clarkson’s introduction?  Perhaps I’m romanticising my memories of the Stig over the years, but I’m sure Clarkson’s introductions have gradually become more bombastic, more over-the-top.  Charlie Cox started that way… and then had to keep getting more and more ridiculous.

Pointlessness is a tightrope that the Top Gear crew walks each week.  Sure, some of the challenges are ridiculous to the point of banality, but they are fun.  A lot of that fun is in the banter between the hosts as they choose and prepare their vehicles.  There may have been chemistry between the Australian hosts on set, however it was indiscernable through the TV, and that meant that I needed the show to offer some truly engaging content to keep me watching.  Unfortunately, the TGA challenges were almost instantly forgettable.  For most of them, it was a choice of off-the-lot cars and fairly routine driving tasks.  In these segments, there seemed to be more focus on the drama provided by the landscape.  Yes, the Australian outback is visually arresting, but that doesn’t absolve television producers from the responsibility for developing interesting content to put against that backdrop.  Pitting a GPS fitted 4WD against an indigenous tracker?  Well… maybe it has some comedy value.  Having the tracker lead a horse that is carrying Warren?  Icky. In segments where modification was part of the preparation, it wasn’t part of a challenge: Warren modified a car to become a shark cage; Warren modified a Smart Car to become a hearse.  Why?

“Show, don’t tell” might be old advice, but it’s not bad advice.  It is, however, advice the TGA producers decided to ignore.  I lost count of the number of times one of the hosts would remark on the jaw-dropping awesomeness of the car he was driving.  “This really turns heads”, “People stop and stare”, “Guys just can’t take their eyes of it” was the gist of the commentary.  Unfortunately, in every instance, this was matched by footage showing people in the street, carrying on their conversations, not even giving the car of the moment a passing glance.

The only “original” segment in the local production was the execrable “What were they thinking!” (exclamation mark mandatory; carnival spruiker intonation also essential).  This particular catchphrase only underscored the misguidedness of entire show.  Top Gear Australia?  What were they thinking!

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