Why I love Top Gear.
Ah, the men's magazine reader. He's standing in line at Barnes & Noble with Men's Journal, Maxim, Esquire, and GQ stacked against his chest. Tonight, he's learning how to order a single-malt scotch in a way that sounds like he knows what he's talking about. Maybe reading up on chiseling those abs or seeing who's a hot pick to draft for his fantasy football league, capping it all by studying a graph detailing erogenous zones so he can "Pleasure Her Until She Can Stand It No More." Look out, ladies: It's that hail fellow who is oft-awkwardly met—the carbon-copy representative of American machismo in an age of nonstop chest-thumping and self-infatuation.
I didn't exactly go looking for an antidote to this version of manhood—I happened upon one. BBC America bills itself as the fastest-growing network in this country, a more nuanced and savvy alternative to standardized network fare. Turn it on, and you're likely to see Gordon Ramsay howling at some beleaguered wannabe chef, Doctor Who come back in his latest incarnation, or a couple of old women who turn up at the homes of everyday people and bemoan the filthy conditions that overwhelm British housekeeping. But you're also likely to stumble upon Top Gear, which the network airs constantly, both in new episodes and repeats. In principle, it's a car show, hosted by three middle-aged guys—Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond—who review the latest automobiles, test them out, and give you loads of details about vehicles you will never be able to afford. But Top Gear also offers a whole new slant on machismo, at least as we know it in the States.
TheTop Gear set looks like a small airplane hangar. There's a couple hundred people for an audience, and Clarkson, May, and Hammond act as emcees, with a car or two on the soundstage. Most of the action takes place in various film clips—which document the trio's races and assorted madcap schemes. A race between a $1.4 million Bugatti Veyron, * for example, over a mile of track, and a Royal Air Force jet going a mile into the air and then exploding downward to overtake its four-wheel challenger. Or a soccer match with a giant balloon ball getting bashed about by cheap city cars to test their handling abilities.
These pyrotechnics provide the show's obvious hook, but the real appeal is seeing how these guys tear into each other. Good naturedly. With, dare I say it, love. Ruthless love, but love, still. It's not scripted. Way too much overlapping dialogue for that, and I can't really imagine that this trio would sit down, Mercury Theatre-style, for endless rehearsals. It's all ad-libbed and occasionally surreal.
Clarkson is the leader—Helen Mirren turned up for one episode and branded him the übermale—and, as such, Hammond and May delight in every instance when one of Clarkson's beloved cars falls apart or threatens to flip in some hellish road test. Such as when the jockish, beefy Clarkson was pursued, over the English countryside, by a military tank, in an episode that attempted to determine just what your chances for escape would be in the event that you should find a warring country on your tail.
May—who resembles a disheveled uncle who's had one too many—exists in a constant daze, earning himself the sobriquet Capt. Slow because of his knack for getting lost, sidetracked, and turning—no matter what directions he is given or the clarity and precision of the GPS voice at his service—the wrong way. In the show's African Special Episode—the best to date—he managed to take a wrong turn into Zimbabwe, where BBC cameras aren't allowed.
Hammond, the youngest and trimmest of the bunch, looks like someone who used to gig with Steve Marriott and the Small Faces, a plucky imp with blooze rocker hair. He almost died a few years back when he flipped a jet-powered car that goes upward of 370 mph. Upon his return, he requested that no jokes be made about the incident, a plea that fell quickly by the wayside. Clarkson has an Oliver Hardy knack for making the sort of allusion—to Hammond's crash-up or May's general befuddlement—and turning to share a look with the camera, which then pans back to a slyly smiling Hammond, barely able to control his laughter, or a frowning May, ready to dismiss his cohorts' shenanigans as beneath him. Bloody schoolboys.
During most episodes, a celebrity—usually of the British ilk—turns up and takes a spin around the trio's rally track, competing for the best time. The celebrities are trained by the notorious Stig, the show's honorary fourth presenter and resident racing savant. No one knows who Stig is—he never takes his racing helmet off and says nary a word on-screen. (Update: Stig's identity was—annoyingly— revealed in January.) * Clarkson claims that Stig believes Stars Wars to be a documentary, but, perhaps most disturbingly, Stig listens to self-help tapes and prog rock—Camel, anyone? —while testing cars on the rally track. Some celebrities are more intent on reigning atop the standings board than others (Simon Cowell looked set to go to town on himself after surpassing Gordon Ramsay), but mostly it's a matter of a proper jaunt, the inner child turned loose on a racecourse and skidding through every turn.
Cars, of course, suggest American machismo—whether it was Robert Mitchum tearing away from revenue agents in Thunder Road or Jackson Pollock flaming out in one last wreck or even that guy in your neighborhood who struts out to his Ferrari to spend a Sunday polishing his heart out. * Let alone the NASCAR honchos, for whom cars are stand-ins for outsized egos and talk of bump drafting is nearly an aphrodisiac. The thing about British machismo, as you see it in Top Gear, is how understated it is. And, in being understated, it becomes like that person who doesn't talk with their hands all flailing about, but rather the one who knows exactly what five words to put into a given conversation and, boom, just nails them, so that everyone else stops what they're doing and starts to think. Or laugh. Loudly.
I could watch the African episode on a loop. The hosts have to make their way 1,000 miles across the Kalahari * and the brackish Makgadikgadi salt pans in cars, sans four-wheel drive, purchased on the cheap. If you don't lighten your load, you'll sink right into the marl of the pans, but Hammond finds himself unable to so much as pry the hubcaps off of his beloved '63 Opel Kadett, * which he christens Oliver. As May * and Clarkson bring the hammer to their own vehicles, knocking out windows, they giggle themselves into fits watching Hammond, truly gutted, walking around Oliver and wondering what to do next. "You know what's happened, don't you?" Clarkson whispers to May, half bemused, half weirded out: "He's formed an emotional attachment to his car." The camera zooms in on the conflicted Hammond. What we've got here is an existential crisis of the automobile variety. That's one intricate slant on machismo, given how deeply it's shot through with levity. Ironic machismo. Detached machismo. I felt kind of bad for the guy. Right up until the point he kept bragging about how easy it was to ford a river in a car like Oliver before proceeding to blow out Ollie's electrical system and sink the both of them.
Colin Fleming writes for The New Yorker, the Atlantic, and Rolling Stone.
Still from Top Gear © BBC. All rights reserved