‘Top Gear’ Returns With New Hosts On BBC America




ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

“Top Gear” is more than just a show about fast cars and funny adventures. It is a blockbuster for the BBC. Tonight, the show returns to BBC America revamped with new hosts. Here’s NPR TV critic Eric Deggans on its chances for success.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “TOP GEAR”)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You don’t want to mess it up. You don’t want to go on the grass.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: I wish I could tell you whether the BBC has recaptured the moneymaking magic that made “Top Gear” one of the most widely viewed TV programs in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “TOP GEAR”)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Whoa, this is too fast.

DEGGANS: But I can’t because BBC America hasn’t given U.S. TV critics an advance look at the new “Top Gear,” stoking questions about why. A lot is riding on the success of this show, which debuts tonight with a new cadre of hosts, including longtime British television personality Chris Evans and former “Friends” star Matt LeBlanc. Yeah, Matt LeBlanc.

Instead, the channel has released a series of promotional videos, including footage of a time when Chris Evans got carsick while riding on the passenger side of a car during a test drive.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “TOP GEAR”)

SABINE SCHMITZ: Whoa, go out, go out, go out, Oh, sorry. Why is red?

CHRIS EVANS: Strawberries.

DEGGANS: Let me reiterate – the newly-hired host of a show about cars got carsick. That video seemed to be a tongue-in-cheek way of acknowledging all the negative rumors the new version of “Top Gear” has faced. Beside Evans’ sickness, there were rumors he and Matt LeBlanc didn’t get along, controversy when LeBlanc skidded his car near a revered English war memorial, and a report in the British press that fans walked out of a show taping when it took too long.

LeBlanc, who’s made special appearances on the show in the past, has denied any animosity with Evans. He told British talk show host Graham Norton the show’s international popularity caught him by surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE GRAHAM NORTON SHOW”)

MATT LEBLANC: It’s a lot bigger than I thought it was. You know, when I first did the show it was fun. And then – now, being a part of it, I mean, it is a – just an international juggernaut of a show.

DEGGANS: “Top Gear” started in 1977 and was revamped in 2002. It features hosts driving a wild variety of cars in amazing places across the globe. The franchise took off with hosts James May, Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson, and became a global brand with DVDs, a magazine, a popular website and more.

These hosts would interject a bit of knuckleheaded humor while driving cars and expertly talking about them both in prerecorded pieces and in segments performed before a live audience. But they could cross the line, as in this moment, when host Richard Hammond made fun of a Mexican sports car.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “TOP GEAR”)

RICHARD HAMMOND: Why would you want a Mexican car? Because cars reflect national characteristics, don’t they? German cars are sort of very well-built and ruthlessly efficient.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah.

HAMMOND: Italian cars are a bit flamboyant and quick. A Mexican car is just going to be a lazy, feckless, flatulent, odorous…

(LAUGHTER)

HAMMOND: …Leaning against the fence asleep, looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat.

DEGGANS: Jeremy Clarkson was fired by the BBC last year after he punched a producer on the show. Co-hosts May and Hammond then left “Top Gear,” along with executive producer Andy Wilman. They’re now creating a car show for Amazon called “The Grand Tour.” Now that the BBC has developed a new team of hosts, including an American for the first time in the show’s history, the question remains – can you do the show without the old hosts?

Chris Evans, not to be confused with the American movie star of the same name, talked up his partnership with Matt LeBlanc on “Good Morning America.”

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “GOOD MORNING AMERICA”)

EVANS: I think we’re like Ernie and Bert from Sesame Street. You know, it’s a two-hand, you know…

LEBLANC: …But we don’t sleep in the same room.

EVANS: Well…

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That’s good to know.

EVANS: …Not yet.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter).

LEBLANC: No, not yet.

DEGGANS: But it’ll take more than a little bit of forced banter to pull off what the new “Top Gear” is attempting – trying to recapture the fun spirit of the old series while leaving its more problematic past behind. I’m Eric Deggans.

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