Saturday, 20 October 2012

TopGear Mk.II is Ten Years Old Today

For those who haven't seen the '02 series, the fat bloke in blue's not James May, he's used car guy Jason Dawe, who lasted one series.
Precisely a decade ago (well, it was precisely so at 8pm GMT), BBC2 broadcast the first episode of the newly rebooted and completely overhauled Top Gear, after the original show - which started way back in 1977 - had petered out at the end of the century. Rather than effectively being a televised magazine, the show was to feature celebrities going balls-out in a Reasonably Priced Car, around the same purpose-built, Lotus-designed airfield test track that supercars would prowl around on at the hands of tall man Jeremy Clarkson, short man Richard Hammond or mysterious and (usually) tame racing driver, The Stig. Oh, and there was another guy there, too. There would also be road tests of the cars that either matter or are surprising in some way, and some of the magazine-based consumer advice and news would stay in as well.

Fast forward to today, and TopGear is a global phenomenon with around 350 million viewers, multi-millionaire hosts and an annual world tour of their explosive live show (which starts next week in Birmingham) drawing in thousands of fans of the BBC show, or maybe even one of the two spin-offs from the colonies. There are also a lot of supporting books and some silly merchandise like a V8 pencil sharpener. Despite its almost constant political incorrectness and celebration of speed and joy behind the wheel, it has continued to be on television, entertaining and enthralling car fans of all ages, even though it has more or less stopped informing them of anything. So Happy Birthday, you mad, mad fools. The world loves you for being what no other show would dare to be. Long may you continue..........

..OK, about that last part. I'm supposed to finish a piece of writing about the tenth anniversary of my favourite show with "here's to the next ten years" or something, but I don't honestly believe that all ten of the next ten years will contain new episodes of TopGear. I'm sorry, but I don't.

I've long been planning to write about this, but I've struggled to find the right words or mood for it. Nevertheless, now's as good a time as any to say that I am one of those people who thinks the show has gone downhill. But then, it's inevitable, isn't it? Look at other shows, or even bands you've listened to for a long time. Eventually they all peak and start to come back down again. Bands I've enjoyed for the last ten years aren't putting out at the same level as before, from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Muse. It sounds like them, and I like that sound, but it isn't them at their best. That, for me, is where TopGear is too, and has been for a few years. I couldn't say for certain where their peak was, though, perhaps partly because every episode has been on Dave so many times that they all feel familiar anyway. CURSE YOU DAVE!!

Still, I first noticed it at around series 12 or 13, when the efforts to be entertaining in the usual ways at the expense of factual or strongly car-based content became more obvious. Despite them trying harder to make us laugh, I was laughing less than I remembered laughing before. There were still good bits - James in Finland, the Fiesta test (in some ways), the V8 blender, cars for 17-year-olds and the over-hour specials, for instance - but overall, particularly in the studio, it felt forced, and people accused them of writing everything the presenters said.

It was the start of that process sitcoms go through where the main characters become self-parodies. Anyone who's watched Friends will know what I mean - Joey goes from being a ladies' man who's a bit thick and likes food to being a retarded borderline sex addict who can eat anything, even books. He's not the only one either, it's all six of them, because the writers run out of ideas or ways to develop the characters, so they make them stereotypes or caricatures of themselves. Anyone who denies that the three TopGear presenters have done the same is lying to themselves. Jeremy is the fatuous shouty one, James is overly pedantic and uncool, and Richard is the rural simpleton who likes agricultural stuff (and by extension Land Rovers) and American, well, most American things. He even dresses like if the Beach Boys had joined a biker gang. In fact, as a show of how true this paragraph is, here is an article reporting that Richard Hammond was upset last year that the J's of the trio were overshadowing him and that he wanted something to be done about his character on the show. So he was "rebranded". Isn't this officially billed as a factual show about cars? Or do they not do that anymore? You do have to wonder sometimes, especially when watching them off-road mobility carriages or piss about in India...

There's something else wrong with a car show becoming a cheap entertainment show whose medium happens to be cars (and political incorrectness), and that's that some of the fans lower in quality. Now, bear with me on this one, because I may have just jumped into a shallow grave with that remark, and I must now write myself a mud ladder to climb out of it again. Now, at first, I was thrilled with the fact that it wasn't just car nerds that were watching TopGear a few years ago, because it meant I could talk to normal people about it and subsequently had something to add in conversations. It became cool (I didn't, but hey). Now, however, there are too many of these non-car folk, and I notice this in two places: and TG Live. Frankly the whole website has gone downhill faster than the TV show ever has. They merged two good forums into one lackluster news section, it hasn't been bug-free since they redesigned it in 2010, and the comments have become largely idiotic compared to before, which causes the more insightful people to leave for greener pastures and worsens things further, until it no longer seems worth commenting. But mind you, this doesn't grate on my inner (yeah OK, outer) nerd as much as some of the stuff you overhear at the Live show. I'd better save time for both of us and not get started on that, especially as this arguably makes me sound imperious, which I hope I'm not.

But whatever. Basically, there's too much of the mindless entertainment to draw in 12-year-olds and imbeciles, and I know that others think the same thing, as evidenced here on YouTube and a TG post on Google Plus:

I'm not saying I want it to be un-entertaining, but I want fewer of the low-IQ cheap gaffs. The caravan train video was a good idea on paper, but became hopeless and very predictable - something set fire, and then the train was destroyed at the end. The Sweeney car chase was a missed opportunity to make something really cool, because instead they just made something dumb and rubbish, being deliberately hopeless because there's a percentage of people who haven't got tired of that yet (and they're the ones going on their website and going "i luv ur show its lulz but i don't get what torks are"). Could you imagine what a TopGear car chase would be like, filmed the way they do their occasional epic, fast-paced features and using all the things we'd like to see in a good car chase? It would be so, so awesome, but instead they went for "Ambitious But Rubbish" and it was disappointing as a result. I know The Tall One does a DVD every Christmas - and I have most of them - where he gives something back to people who think like me about these things, but I want more of that in the actual show in some way. Perhaps they could make it more in line with what TopGear Magazine does, with driving adventures (a smaller version of the first few Big Specials, for instance) and big tests of the latest astonishing supercar and so on. I would love more of that and less mindless cocking about.

Jeremy Clarkson himself, indisputably "Mr. TopGear", once did an advert for Forza Motorsport 4, where he said that there is less of a hang out for petrolheads, as we're continually cracked down on by the speed police and the safety police and various other polices, and that Forza 4 is a place, a haven, where you get to be an unashamed petrolhead and it's OK to be one, where you get to indulge your 98RON blood and enjoy car fan nirvana. Well why can't TopGear be that? TopGear used to, and should still be that very place, somewhere to treat as a temple for all that is fast, and thrilling and exciting about the motoring world. I get the feeling that the presenters even want more of that to come out in the episodes, but they also have to appeal to the 12-year-olds to keep the show popular, and perhaps keep the money to fund films like the three-supercars-through-Italy piece - which I much enjoyed - rolling in.

Happily, the last two series have seen a bit of a resurgence with the some great films popping up, like the three hot hatches ending up at Monaco. This means I can hold out hope for a return to form of sorts, as they've clearly still got it in them. I've gone on at length (sorry), but really all I want is for my beloved TopGear to rediscover the recipe they one had just right. There's a balance to be struck between being entertainment and being a car show, and generally speaking, they aren't striking it often. Really, the chemistry between the presenters is such that the humour doesn't need to be forced. It'll happen on its own whenever they have to interact with each other, be it in the studio offending someone or bantering about who's brought the wrong car to a challenge. So don't strive to make something deliberately silly and funny. Make something epic instead. That's when you're at your best. Make people type "wow" instead of "lol". Often people who type LOL aren't really laughing anyway...

Oh I don't know. I guess they'll just continue for as long as they can, glad that they can still make TopGear at all, and I'll still be watching. Of course I will. TopGear is TopGear. It would have to get absolutely awful for me to actually stop watching it. Until then, perhaps rather than expecting things of a ten-year, eighteen-series old car program on television, I should just treat new TG like my old friend. Memories from the last decade will never be forgotten, and together we will continue on until the time comes once and for all to go our separate ways or otherwise say goodbye. I hope that doesn't happen soon, but it will happen within the next decade. I can't see a way for them to continue unless they take a year or two off and reinvent it again. So I won't think about it. Happy birthday, old friend. Let's shut up and eat cake.

Some Say that when you put on and blow out 10 candles, it sounds like a '90s Formula 1 car, and that consuming it all in under 1:15.1 will cause you to be beaten down with a chair leg by the Greatest Enigma...... In The World.

All we know is, Ben Collins is a jackass.
And a decade on, TopGear 2.0 is still the best show on telly. Sometimes...

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