Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Has "Top Gear" jumped the shark?

During the making of "The World at War,"- a TV documentary series about World War II - one of the issues the producers had to deal with was the authenticity of the film they used. Whenever possible, they wanted to use actual footage of events, not staged footage taken later. As one example, they showed film of a battle that the Soviets recreated; with the camera carefully located in the center of the action.
Our rule was; don’t invent, don’t reconstruct, don’t use material that you know to have been reconstructed, unless you absolutely have to, and don’t do so even then without saying that you’re going to. We used to look very suspiciously at, but we sometimes did use, battle scenes where the camera is suspiciously steady, or is apparently quite safe in a supposedly dangerously exposed position.

Jeremy Isaacs, Producer ‘The World At War

I was reminded of this while watching the latest episode of Top Gear on Monday night [BBCAmerica]. Top Gear is one of my favorite shows, both because of the subject matter, as well as the production values. For example, in the latest episode they compare a couple of sports cars, and have two or three panning shots that include the same vehicle driving by multiple times; a neat trick that would have required some kind of motorized/controlled rig to capture. There's no slacking in the production area, but some of the other elements of the show are feeling formulaic, and have moved away from a documentary feel mixed with a little whacky humor, into total fantasy.

Jeremy eats an ice cream as his car goes over the cliff behind him

A central element of the program are the "Challenges." In a Challenge, the three hosts have to buy or build a vehicle of a specified type/price, and are then given challenges to see who has the best one. Many of these segments have little educational value, and are purely entertainment derived from the adventures the hosts get in to.

While there's always been an element of fakery to these segments, I can't help thinking that the level of fakery has either gone over the top, or the acting is getting worse, or they are just over playing it.

As just one example, in the latest episode, one host goes down to eat an ice cream while the other two decide to move his car. They end up losing control of it and it goes over a cliff; perfectly in shot behind the guy eating his ice cream.

And yes, I know the show is entertainment, not a documentary! But the conceit of the segments was always that  the basic competition was real; we weren't watching a sitcom on wheels. Sure there's been elements of the surreal in these segments (pianos dropping from the sky, vehicles blowing up) but these - at least in my mind - were separated from the primary "reality."

Now it feels like everything is being faked, and it just doesn't seem as satisfying.

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