The best program on British television, and possibly the best program in the history of television, runs Sunday nights on BBC 2. It's called "Top Gear" and it's about how each of us can make the world a better place with simple acts of kindness, compassion and neighborhood voluntarism.
Who am I kidding? "Top Gear" is a totally indefensible hour-long show devoted to the internal combustion engine. It's about cars. But to call it a weekly car-test show is like calling "La Boheme" a show about a girl with a pesky cough. They drive new models, yes, but "Top Gear" is unadulterated car-porn, but with much better production values. The segments are beautifully filmed and edited, making each car look tooth-achingly beautiful. It's as if they called in Ridley Scott or Michael Bay to direct.
And they do ridiculously entertaining high-concept things in the show, like have a Bugatti Veyron race a light airplane from Italy to London or have an Aston Martin race a man on rollerskates with a jet-pack strapped to his back down a runway. They bring in celebrities to do a timed lap around their course in an econobox then reveal whether Simon Cowell was faster than Jamie Oliver. Sure, "Top Gear" demonstrates the luggage capacity of the new Land Rover, but goes far, far beyond merely dutiful reviews of the new Honda or Daihatsu.
The first thing I noticed about "Top Gear" was how pathetic it makes America's closest analogue appear. In the States there's a PBS show called "MotorWeek" which manages the amazing feat of making every car it tests look boring. It has at its host a humorless guy named John Davis who sucks the life out of even the most thrilling vehicles. Part of it is Davis's incredibly over-scripted delivery, each word uttered as if he's reading it from a TelePrompTer. And part of it's just Davis. He's a tubby guy who couldn't lever himself into a Lotus or Lamborghini unless he was sprayed with graphite. The other main character is Pat Goss, a garage owner from suburban Maryland who talks about car maintenance. His segment at least makes viewers dream that their garages could be as clean and well-equipped as his, but he's another chubby sourpuss. (And nowhere more sour than on his weekly radio program. He can barely hide the contempt in his voice when listeners phone in to ask about their "Check Engine" lights.)
The cars on "MotorWeek" are driven responsibly. You can't imagine them getting above 55 mph, let alone racing a man with a jet-pack on his back.
"Top Gear's" main host is Jeremy Clarkson, the anti-John Davis. In addition to his "Top Gear" duties, Clarkson pens an engaging car column in the Sunday Times. It's his weekly non-car column that explains why Clarkson is so popular in Britain, though. (There's a nascent "Clarkson for Prime Minister" movement.) Fed up with political correctness, Clarkson is a master of "I calls it as I see it." He can deploy a metaphor with the aplomb and audacity of a Thai stripper picking a Ping Pong ball up off a bar floor. It can all be a bit much sometimes, but it's a refreshing antidote to the furrowed-brow hand-wringing that characterizes so much British journalism.
This segment gives a taste of "Top Gear's" sensibility:
There's nothing as entertaining-- or wonderfully irresponsible--on American televsion. "Top Gear's" in re-runs now. It won't start up again till the summer, by which time I'll be back in the land of "MotorWeek." Pity, as I enjoy my weekly dose of petrol--er, gasoline.