Culture Clash - Top Gear does Alabama

In case you don't know what Top Gear is, it's a British car show that you can't get in the U.S. on most standard satellite and cable packages. But in the age of the Internet, that hasn't stopped it from being an underground hit here in the "Colonies." It’s widely available online through a myriad of sources I won't go into here. You can find tons of clips on YouTube.

What's made the show so popular (not just in the U.S. but globally) is that it's more than just your standard car show. Yes, they review cars. And even for just standard car reviews they do that extremely well with artistic camera angles, framing, segues, music and extremely well-done editing.

But it's the injection of a unique personality that really makes the show stand out. For most of their standard car reviews they complete the review by allowing 'the Stig' (a masked and unknown professional racing driver) to give each car a timed lap around their track which is then compared with all cars that previously ran the track. They also bring one celebrity in for each episode and make them drive a timed lap around their track in a cheap car (the 'star in a reasonably priced car' segment.) Hugh Grant was the most recent guest.

But the real hook is the personalities of the presenters themselves as well as all the unique and offbeat challenges they come up with. Just a small sample of some of the things they've done:

-They staged a race from England to Monte Carlo to see if it was faster to drive (via Aston Martin DB9) or to use public transportation (including the ultra-highspeed French TGV and Eurostar trains.)

-They were each given 1,500 pounds (roughly $3,000) to buy old Porsches which were then put through a series of tests that quickly proved the foibles of purchasing an old Porsche.

-To dramatically prove the well-known durability of Toyota pickups they put a Toyota through a series of various tortures (smashing it with/through various large objects, setting it on fire, drowning it in the rising ocean tides, setting it on top of a 20-story building before it was demolished.) For the record, the truck survived (relatively speaking) all these tortures. It now resides as a sort of trophy in their studio.

Each of the three main presenters have their own distinct personalities (far too many idiosyncrasies to try and explain here), but the one underlying similarity is that they are all extremely British and Euro-centric in their perspective and opinions. American cars are all "rubbish" and can't "go around corners." Japanese cars generally have "no soul" (the only knock they could likely come up with given the well-established quality and value of most Japanese cars.) And these opinions are further projected onto the cultures of the countries themselves. Americans in particular take a lot of ribbing and shots. It's the main hurdle that might make this show difficult for some Americans to digest in its current format. As a Southerner though I've grown accustomed to being saddled with stereotypes so I'm able to take it in stride and usually don't take offense. Obviously they are playing to their market by playing up the stereotypes (regardless of whether they personally share those opinions or not.) An American show would likely do the same thing.

Which brings me back to my original reason for posting. Top Gear's most recent episode followed "the boys" on their trip through the South. They flew into Miami and each presenter bought a vehicle for $1,000 (not $1,000 downpayment; $1,000 TOTAL.) They then drove up through the Florida peninsula on their way to New Orleans. The series was obviously filmed this past summer given the heat; only one car had functioning A/C, much to the chagrin of the two other presenters. Along the way they stopped at a track to have their cars tested by "Fat Stig"; the trailer-park dwelling equivalent to the more svelte British Stig. Other adventures included a challenge requiring them to eat roadkill (they made a big production of it, but I don't believe they ever did) and the segment featured below - driving through Alabama with slogans meant to incite the locals written on the sides of their car.

If you watch the whole video, you can see they get their wish. Not exactly a shock. And I don't mean that as a crack on my home state. If you deliberately set out to antagonize someone (especially in their home environment) it's not exactly a shock when they react. You could easily get a similar reaction in other parts of the U.S. (or in other countries) by using carefully-targeted remarks - and especially with a film crew in tow . Knowing how the show operates from past viewings (I've seen every episode; some multiple times) I know it was clearly edited to overplay the real drama. This trend on the show has only grown more noticeable over time as they grapple with finding new ideas to make the show compelling. They had an episode on camping last summer that was similarly over-scripted/edited.

Still, it's unfortunate they were given the material they were so desperately seeking (because they could've made even a non-incident look alarmingly life-threatening for their main audience with clever editing.) And as someone who knows the area, they clearly went out of their way to find a rural/backwater town to provoke an incident. I-10 runs through the boot of Alabama and is the fastest, most direct route to New Orleans. You could drive non-stop on I-10 and go through the entire state of Alabama in about 45 minutes with zero need to stop and fill-up. This is also a fairly densely-populated region due to its proximity to the Gulf. Most areas directly off the interstate generally wouldn't match the stereotypical rural/redneck areas they were looking for. You've got an urban environment in Mobile on the western shore and a relatively affluent area on the eastern shore in Daphne/Fairhope. Clearly, they had to deviate from the most logical route to seek out a "hick town" that would match what they were looking for. You could find a town like that in most states. But the South (and Alabama in particular) is always a ripe target. I chuckled when Clarkson said they were "running for the border" after this incident . . . as if Mississippi were somehow dramatically different.

As frustrating as it was to see Alabama once again cast in a negative light, I don't hold any ill will toward Top Gear. They're simply doing what they always do. And overall, it was a fairly entertaining episode. Yes, the America-bashing was out in full force as expected. But it's always entertaining to see them outside their comfort zone, which seems to be a relatively easy feat to accomplish. Ironically they seem every bit as sheltered, if not dramatically moreso, than those they are poking fun of. I also loved the fact that by the end of the episode they all loved their old beater American cars - which generally held up extremely well.


Mississippi State University Stig said...

Parrotheader, as you can see I love the show too...

I also thought it was incredibly ironic that they would go to my state Mississippi. I'm relatively certain they would have gotten attacked on the road here and wouldn't have even needed to find a hick town.

I gotta say though, they did make up for everything by giving their cars away at the end in New Orleans. Isn't it ironic they gave them away to the old "French" colony? ha--

KeithB said...

I love the show, but the sequences such as this are definitely scripted and/or edited for dramatic effect (and it's grown increasingly obvious as it gets harder to come up with fresh ideas.)

Still, it's entertaining. I hate that this season was only 6 episodes as opposed to the usual 8-episode installment.

Anonymous said...

I think filming for the series was cut short by Richard Hammonds "incident" in the jet car.

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