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Top Gear is dead

A fool always crashes the car

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Top Gear, the most popular automotive show in the world hosted by your hostile, chain-smoking racist uncle, is over. Or at least the version you knew best, hosted by aforementioned racist uncle Jeremy Clarkson with Richard Hammond and James May, is over and done. Clarkson was let go by the BBC for his final final straw, a punch-up with a producer over steak and fries, because you even had to be terminated in the most British fashion imaginable, Jeremy. You just had to.

That chain-smoking racist uncle and Prince Philip of the BBC got to this point via a long and shambolic series of half-tiffs and legitimate offenses to the viewing public, much of it on the BBC's very, very large Top Gear expense account. He used an ethnic slur in Burma, and used another one in a schoolboy's nursery rhyme in an outtake that made its way to the Internet. He has, in turn, offended Germans, the Poles, the blind, the government of Malaysia, the developmentally disabled, the gay community, those with facial deformities, the entire nation of Argentina, the Welsh, the entire nation of Mexico, the entire nation of Romania and one particular tree in Somerset. Look, there's an entire wiki entry devoted to Top Gear's offenses. It is not a short list, because Jeremy Clarkson, the show's dominant force, is a dick, or in James May's more British phrasing, "a monumental bellend."

If that's truly it for this version of Top Gear, the best car show on the planet implodes after a 12-year run in its best-known format. For those not familiar with the program, that format usually included several or all of the following in variation:

  • Cars that cost as much as nice houses sliding sideways on test tracks
  • One or more of those hosts screaming "HOOOOHOHOOHO" while nearly crashing said car
  • A random destruction element (like putting an old Citroen in the path of a jet engine, for example)
  • The most perfunctory review of actual car news imaginable, often done in front of a clearly terrified and uncomfortable audience
  • Random challenges involving beater cars, often in well-expensed road challenges abroad
  • A celebrity interview which was an excuse to get them behind the wheel of a useless compact car on a test track
  • James May seemingly walking in from a calmer, more civilized nature documentary to find his job had changed overnight, and not for the better
  • Jeremy Clarkson openly pining for the return of the British Empire
  • Richard Hammond pointing at Clarkson and nodding along while giggling

That's pretty much it, and pretty much all the show needed to be. Cars aren't the most exciting subject in the world for the general viewer, and Top Gear's creative team seemed to be all too happy to admit that. They sandwiched in gearhead talk between smoking tires, and erotic contour surveys of the body of a Pagani Zonda and lavish camerawork and editing that would embarrass the budgets of 90 percent of American television shows. No car on Top Gear ever turned through a corner with fewer than five cameras on it at all times, and never without slashing through five different quick-cuts on the way to the back straightaway.

If all the cars and flashy editing failed to move your needle, then Top Gear would happily stun you with scenery, as they did in creeping along Bolivia's Death Road, putting a Ferrari on ice above the Arctic Circle in Norway or trundling across Africa in battered station wagons. And if that didn't work you could always just wait to see what celebrity would turn into Mr. Toad behind the wheels of a car, or nearly crash it in the attempt as Michael Gambon did on the corner of the track named for him.

*For the record: Brian Johnson of AC/DC was the fastest star in multiple runs in multiple cars, a fact that should surprise exactly zero people alive, and comedienne Jennifer Saunders was the fastest woman.

If watching venerable stage actors nearly roll a Chevy Cruze missed you, an episode of Top Gear still held two cards it played better than any show on television.

First, there was farce, a moment where the racist uncle excelled at his job. If James May were the quiet English gardening enthusiast misplaced in an overgrown teenager's car show and Richard Hammond the peppy sychophant seconds from leaping into a firesuit, then Clarkson was the sway-gutted master of extremely personalized and bombastic farce. Too tall to ride in most cars -- he famously could not fit in the original Ford GT without an act of self-decapitation -- and hopelessly middle-aged, Clarkson often put himself in the tiniest cars imaginable and let the breeze blow his flappy jowls to the back of his head in an Ariel Atom. He loved the Toyota Hilux so much he blew up a building to prove its durability. Clarkson happily joined the long tradition of miserable British globetrotting, waking up in improvised campers in Uganda or nursing hangovers on camera in New Delhi hotel rooms. Often, he seemed to prefer humiliating failure to success, giggling and bellowing "OH NO" theatrically as his hovercrafts sank or as his Lexus LFA died in a drag race against a shitkicking pickup truck in Nevada.

Clarkson did precisely what you would want to do in a car, all the time. He acted like an idiot, especially when put behind the wheel of a three-wheeled Robin Reliant.

Second, if farce missed you, there was always the car -- or more importantly, the ability to pop open a rusty hatch in the side of a dour adult's psychological armor, peer inside and find the adolescent boy inside and ask: "Do you want to see something completely and utterly cool?" Clarkson on Top Gear, for all the other complete bullshit and at his best, was a conductor for the raw electricities of speed and power at the limit. At Imola, he seemed genuinely astonished. When driving a Corvette across the American West, he begrudgingly started to love it despite his avowed distaste for American muscle cars, hooting as he hammered the throttle and praising its "savagery." The Ferrari 458 reduced him to exasperated, giddy gibberish.

In the moment of driving, Clarkson could convince the viewer a car was a living thing, something with human flaws, quirks, equally lovable and detestable in turns, an erotic thing in a conversation with the equally lovable and detestable human at the wheel. Take a test lap with him in a Fiat 500 Abarth and he could properly place the car in a historical context, point out the cappuccino machine styling and describe the car's ADHD handling all while still gleefully pointing out "a turbo boost gauge the size of a fat spaniel's face." Never mind how the Abarth swore to Jeremy that it was a Lamborghini; it just did, and you got to eavesdrop on the conversation.

Being done at the BBC doesn't mean they're done-done. Top Gear will probably go to Netflix, or some other provider with ample cash and more tolerance of Jeremy Clarkson's periodic forays into racist unclehood. That'll happen because prior to burying his fist in an underling's face, Top Gear still commanded something north of five million viewers per episode in the UK alone. This doesn't include ratings abroad in 50 different countries, streaming views or the income from Top Gear's numerous nationally-branded spinoffs. As a viewer, you'll probably get two shows out of it, actually: whatever the BBC does under the Top Gear name, plus the Clarkson and Company show on a channel to be named later.

That's technically "more," but it definitely will not be "the same." There were other tidy, neat phrases of deadly accuracy in Clarkson's reviews. When reviewing a Lamborghini Murcielago (yet another car you will never, ever own,) he asked "What's the point of a Lamborghini that doesn't have space thrusters sticking out the side?" And yeah: what is the point of something practical, when what you want out of a car are flames, roaring and the possibly real risk of of a fiery, expensive death? Clarkson could sell you on the value of impracticality, of total foolishness for foolishness's sake. He made it admirable, even.

Another pinpoint-accurate thumbnail sketch of note bears mention. Clarkson suggested that one could never really relax in a Porsche 911, because they had "a fearsome reputation for not tolerating fools." He then continued: "And I am a fool." Clarkson crashed the 911 seconds afterwards, because a fool is a designed thing, too. They're made to crash the car in the end, and honestly deserve it. While we're being honest, that doesn't mean it wasn't fun as hell watching him rip around the track a few times, either.