'Top Gear' is the greatest show on TV - but now it's facing its greatest challenge
BBC Worldwide/Top Gear via Netflix
"Top Gear" has been pulled from the BBC's television lineup and its lead host Jeremy Clarkson has been suspended by the network after a fracas with one of the show's producers.
For the first time since it's rebirth in 2002, the show is facing the very real specter of cancellation. That means Jeremy Clarkson's latest indiscretion may do what the world's most treacherous terrain, dangerous cars, and a lynch mob in Argentina couldn't accomplish - stop "Top Gear."
Should Clarkson remain sidelined by the bosses at the BBC, "Top Gear" simply would not be able to function. It is only with the sparkling chemistry among the show's charismatic trio of hosts - Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May - that the show can thrive. "Top Gear" is in the middle of its 22nd season with three episodes yet to air. There's no word from the BBC when those episodes will hit the airwaves.
In the meantime, let's take some time to enjoy its unorthodox and irreverent approach to automotive journalism has made "Top Gear" popular with fans and critics worldwide.
In case you need any reminding, here's why "Top Gear" is can't-miss TV, even if you aren't a car nut or addicted to that veddy British sense of humor:
1. "Top Gear's" storytelling method gives it universal appeal.
New viewers to "Top Gear" shouldn't mistake it for a run-of-the-mill car show. Because it isn't one.
At its core, the show aims to be informative, but does so with a unique blend of hyperbolic comedy, action, and drama that crosses the boundaries of age, gender, and culture. According to CBS's 60 Minutes, "Top Gear's" unique storytelling method and irreverent attitude helped the show generate 350 million viewers a week worldwide, as well as a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most-watched "factual" TV program.
When asked by 60 Minutes to explain the show's appeal, "Top Gear" executive producer Andy Wilman joked, "It's a journey into the male mind, which I believe, is a really, potentially, very funny place - 'cause, let's face it, nothing happens there."
He's right - but 40% of "Top Gear's" audience is actually female!
In fact, the show's near-universal appeal has helped turn it into a $1.5 billion brand, with spinoff series in Russia, Australia, South Korea, and the United States.
2. The show's 3 hosts have the greatest on-camera chemistry in TV.
Even though "Top Gear" has spawned an American version on the History Channel, what makes the original the most fun is the inimitable chemistry between the show's trio of hosts. In fact, the program is propelled as much by their sometimes caustic camaraderie as it is by cars. One of the highlights of the show is the constant personality clash between the pedantic James May (nicknamed "Captain Slow" because he favors a non-thrashy driving style) and the bombastic Jeremy Clarkson (who doesn't really have a nickname).
3. Richard Hammond was nearly killed in a jet car crash during filming and didn't miss an episode.
In 2006, Richard Hammond was nearly killed when the right-front tire of the Vampire jet car he was driving burst at nearly 300 mph, leading to a catastrophic crash. The accident, which caused the host to suffer memory loss and brain damage, had safety activists calling for the show's cancelation. Fortunately, Hammond, known on the show as "The Hamster" due to his diminutive stature, returned to show just three months later without missing a single episode.
4. Due to the "unique" way the BBC is funded, "Top Gear" is able to be brutally honest.
Unlike most American network shows, the BBC and "Top Gear" are funded by British taxpayers, which means the hosts can pretty much say or do whatever they want without fear of retribution from sponsors. In fact, when Jay Leno turned down NBC's American spinoff of Top Gear, the comedian cited the potential influence of sponsors on the opinions expressed in the show as a main reason for his decision.
5. The "Clarkson Effect" is real, and car companies hate it.
Jeremy Clarkson has long been a popular automotive journalist in the UK, but "Top Gear" has catapulted his influence into the stratosphere. In what has become known as the "Clarkson Effect," a positive or negative review from the host can make or break a product. When MG Rover entered bankruptcy in 2005, many at the automaker's Longbridge factory blamed Clarkson's negative reviews for torpedoing the company's sales.
In 2011, Tesla sued "Top Gear" unsuccessfully for libel after Clarkson's exceedingly negative review of the company's Roadster caused panic among investors and led a few customers to cancelled their preorders. When asked by the BBC News about Clarkson, Tesla CEO Elon Musk replied, "He can be very funny and irreverent, but he does have a bias against electric cars. His two pet peeves are American cars and electric cars, and we're an American electric car."
6. "Top Gear" has an awesome mascot called "The Stig."
One of "Top Gear's" most popular characters is the show's unofficial mascot and mysterious resident professional test driver. Producers created the mute, helmet-clad character because they needed an adequately skillful driver to navigate the show's test track, located at a former air force base. The BBC has gone to great lengths to keep the true identity of the Stig a secret, even resorting to legal action to prevent the release of the information.
"Top Gear" takes its style of automotive journalism to the extreme via over-the-top globetrotting adventures. Instead of simply telling viewers whether a car is good or bad, the show will also subject vehicles to extreme real-world conditions. In 2007, Clarkson and May became the first people to drive to the North Pole, when the pair piloted a modified Toyota Hilux truck through the Arctic.
"Top Gear's" groundbreaking use of camera filters and cinematic wizardry has completely changed the way car shows are presented.
Nearly every episode features a segment called "A Star In a Reasonably Priced Car," in which a celebrity is asked to tackle the "Top Gear" test track in an underpowered economy car. The result is a series of very entertaining sequences showing off each celebrity's driving prowess - or in many cases, lack thereof.
10. Top Gear even has a live stadium show.
"Top Gear's" hosts have enhanced their rock-star status by going on a live stadium tour, complete with pyrotechnics, car stunts, and comedic gags. So far, "Top Gear" live has made its way through 24 counties. Sadly, it does not seem the live action show will come be coming to America any time soon.
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