When SPEED announced a while back that they’d be optioning comedian Adam Carolla’s idea for a car show, it took all of five seconds for the automotive media to compare it to BBC’s Top Gear. Yes, like comparing new BMW M cars to the 1986 M3 and comparing Toyota Camrys to washing machines, no new car show can be announced without the flood of inevitable comparisons by auto scribes to BBC’s magnum opus.
Watch Carolla’s new show for a few minutes, however, and you’ll realize this: the last thing SPEED wants is for their new project to be mentioned in the same sentence as “that British show.” They’re right to do it too — despite its cult following on BBC America and in online pirate download circles, both the British and American versions of Top Gear draw small ratings, and Top Gear USA failed once on NBC before being relaunched on the History Channel.
With its mission clear, Wednesday night’s premiere of TCS looked and felt like it was designed with American sports television — not the BBC — in mind. There’s “0 to 60,” a fast-paced head-to-head opinion segment where each topic gets 60 seconds of debate, which is pulled from ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” a series of short films a la SportsCenter, and a loud-mouthed host, Adam Carolla, previously of The Man Show. There’s also John Salley, who played in the NBA from 1986 to 2000.
Carolla and Salley are backed up by even more “mouth:” Dan Neil, the automotive reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and Matt Farah, writer and star of the online auto show “The Smoking Tire.” The combination of four hard-headed dude hosts is an obvious ploy: The Car Show is going to be built on the chemistry between them.
If the chemistry checks the first box, the subject matter checks the second one; TCS’ first pre-recorded film in the premiere took all four hosts to Reno, Nevada, for the staging of a 24 Hours of LeMons race. The premise is simple: take a busted Nissan 300ZX with three functioning automatic gears, and race the hell out of it.
Top Gear viewers might know why this segment was important. When the BBC converted a BMW 3 series to run on homegrown biofuel and then raced it at the 24 Hours of Silverstone, the audience got an intimate look into the chemistry between Clarkson, May, and Hammond, how the show operates, how real-life racing drama unfolds. The Car Show didn’t need to replicate (or out-do) the British race, but it did have the same opportunity to force the hosts to gain chemistry as well as force the viewers to “meet” them. Simply put? It was a great opportunity for TCS to shine in its own right.
But then Dan Neil blew some sort of seal, a fire started, and the segment was over after less than five minutes of screentime. We’re not entirely sure where the car came from, what the problem was, nothing. All we know is that Neil was armed with a fire extinguisher and his co-hosts got lost trying to tow him off the track. Worse, the film didn’t feel like it ended thanks to a thrown hose — it felt like it ended because it ran out of time.
We suppose The Car Show is like that LeMons race: an ambitious idea with frenetic, disjointed execution that ends up falling short.
Unfortunately, the lack of development didn’t stop there. The men, many of whom are revered for individual projects, lacked much of their personalities on screen — both Farah and Carolla seemed muzzled, Salley knew next to nothing about cars, and Neil was inconsistent. Finally, the pre-recorded films seem to have been conceived with Top Gear in mind, a serious mistake. If SPEED knows what’s good for it, those films won’t benchmark the BBC, they’ll benchmark SportsCenter’s rapidfire, quick-hit video pieces without gimmicks or attempts at whizbangery. Simply put: in their haste to entertain the country, Adam Carolla and SPEED slapped on the protective film and drove the car onto the carrier before the paint was dry.
Coming back from a commercial break Carolla re-introduced the show by saying “Welcome back to The Car Show. It’s going to get better!” For now, we can only hope he’s right.
The Car Show airs Wednesday nights at 10 PM Eastern on SPEED.
Photo courtesy of SPEED TV