I have a confession to make… I don't like cars. I don't like reading about them. I don't like talking about them. I don't like hearing about them. Hell, to be honest, I don't even like driving them. Still, with all that said, for whatever reason, I actually really like 'Top Gear.' Essentially a gearhead's dream come true, the long running British program takes an entertaining and often very funny look at all things vehicular. From test drives, news, and reviews, to crazy challenges and elaborate stunts, the series presents an all encompassing celebration of car loving culture. On paper it sounds like something I'd hate, and yet the producers and three hosts inject such irresistible charm, wit, creativity, and fun into every episode that I often find myself so completely captivated by the silly nonsense and playful banter, that I totally forget about my usual aversion to all things automobile related. A worldwide sensation, the series has inspired versions in various countries, including an American iteration currently airing on the History Channel, though none of them come close to capturing the irreverent spirit of the original. Like the many seasons that preceded it, 'Top Gear: The Complete Season 16' gives fans exactly what they've come to expect from the show, with some creative challenges, celebrity interviews, and of course, plenty of looks at exotic, expensive supercars.
The season is made up of seven episodes and two specials (though one special is simply extended footage from an earlier segment). Each installment usually features a mixture of live studio audience material and on location footage. Hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, the episodes are split into segments that cover car related news, reviews, and head-to-heads. Also featured, are celebrity interviews that see the guests compete for the best time around the 'Top Gear' track while driving in a "reasonably priced car." Of most interest though, are the often complicated and wonderfully entertaining challenges that the producers cook up for the hosts to compete in. These segments frequently involve some sort of non-traditional race set in exotic locations with either extremely luxurious vehicles, or alternatively cheap, used cars.
What really makes 'Top Gear' work is the chemistry between its talented hosts. The trio plays off each other perfectly, often engaging in brotherly jabs, insults, ribbing, and competition. Their on-screen personas seem to be slight exaggerations of their real life personalities, and they play up their unique characteristics to great effect. Clarkson acts as the sort of ring leader, steering most episodes with a subversive wit and sarcastic sense of humor. On the other hand, Hammond is much more overtly enthusiastic and earnest, usually causing him to be the butt of most jokes. Nicknamed "Captain Slow" by his companions, May is much more reserved and contemplative, providing a nice contrast to his two co-hosts. The various challenges that they embark on against each other, succeed not only due to the actual inventive scenarios, but to the way the three hosts tease and goad each other on. Some of the crazy adventures and on location segments that the group partakes in this season include a road trip through America and the Middle East, a crime themed journey to Albania, an upside-down car competition against Top Gear Australia, a race against the rotation of the Earth itself, a challenge which involves a forensic examination of some used cars (the results aren't pretty), and a cool look at NASA's new moon buggy.
Though, as I stated earlier, I couldn't really care less about most of the cars showcased, the actual presentation tends to be very well done, bringing a cool, sensationalized style to the proceedings. The producers go out of their way to make the exotic supercars look as amazing as possible, often utilizing various filters and many elaborate angles and set ups. The reviews, head-to-heads, test drives, stunts, and challenges all feature a visceral shooting style that gives the viewer a great sense of speed and momentum. POV angles, tracking movements, and even frequent swooping aerial shots cover the action from every vantage point possible, showing off the impressive vehicles and breathtaking locations. In fact, while we're on the subject of locations, the producers seem to take full advantage of the show's seemingly hefty budget, often setting segments in remote, foreign areas seemingly just for the hell of it. This excess just adds to the whole appeal of the show, and the often extravagant vehicles, locales, and scenarios are brilliantly juxtaposed against more stripped down challenges which see the hosts chug along boring, old roads in used cars that constantly break down.
Rounding out the series' defining aspects, are its unique celebrity interviews. Clarkson sits down one on one with the guests and is a charming interviewer, keeping his cynical and sardonic sense of humor fully intact, regardless of who sits across from him. At the end of each interview, we get to see the celebrity race around the 'Top Gear' track in a Kia Cee'd competing against previous guests' times for the top spot on the leader board. These segments are often very amusing, as many of the stars seem rather excited, terrified, or clueless behind the wheel. Some guests featured in this season include Danny Boyle, Amber Heard, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Jonathan Ross. One of the most interesting interviews actually involves former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who engages in a sometimes lively and borderline heated debate on traffic regulations that gets the crowd riled up.
While the show is undeniably great fun, there are still some issues which hold it back a bit. Some challenges are certainly more effective than others, with a few lacking the creativity and luster found in past seasons. Also, they tend to drag a bit from time to time and can run a little too long. Though the producers do a pretty good job of coming up with new, unique scenarios and segments, some aspects of the show can get rather repetitive and while the hosts themselves are always solid, their interactions on the challenges do occasionally seem a bit too scripted. These are all rather minor issues though, and even though this season isn't quite as good as other previous efforts, it still retains all the elements that make the show so appealing.
'Top Gear: The Complete Season 16' provides another delightful set of vehicular hijinks from the popular program. Even those who usually hate car related shows will probably find something to admire in the likable hosts, celebrity interviews, and humorous, elaborate stunts. Though not quite as strong as previous seasons, fans should still be pleased with this assortment of episodes, and those new to the show should really consider checking it out.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The BBC brings 'Top Gear: The Complete Season 16' to Blu-ray on three BD-50 discs housed in a standard case. The first disc includes episodes 1-3, the second has episodes 4-6, and the third contains episode 7, the two specials, and all of the extras. Some skippable trailers play upon startup before transitioning to a standard menu.
The show is provided with a 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Shot digitally in high definition, the visuals are a bit of a mixed bag.
The main problem with the presentation is the appearance of frequent artifacts, including periodic instances of noise, banding, shimmering, aliasing, and edge enhancement. Though occasionally bothersome and almost always visible to some degree, these issues certainly don't ruin the program. On the plus side, detail is good, showing off the exotic and often breathtaking locations with pleasing clarity and depth. Colors are also strong, appearing vivid and rich. The filmmakers like to use various filters throughout the proceedings that give the different segments a bold and dynamic quality. Black levels are good though whites tend to be blown out, giving a sometimes overexposed sense of contrast.
'Top Gear: The Complete Season 16' looks decent, and though superior to its compressed broadcast appearance, the various digital artifacts present do hold the video back from really shinning. While not bad, the visuals are uneven.
The series is provided with an English Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included. With just two lossy channels, this is a pretty basic mix.
Dialogue is clean and easy to understand, but there are a few crackles here and there. Directionality across the left and right speakers is strong, and the track does a solid job of doing what it can with its limited soundstage. Of course, the most prominent effects throughout the show involve engines roaring and tires squealing, and low end activity is decent for a 2.0 effort. Dynamic range, however, tends to be rather flat, lacking a full array of frequencies. Balance within the mix is handled well, even in some of the trickier locations.
The show sounds OK, but never impressive, and the lossy two channel track can't overcome an inherent lack of immersion and fidelity. The mix gets the job done, but not much else.
The BBC has put together a decent but slim assortment of supplements, including some extended looks at celebrities on the track, and some behind-the-scenes footage. All of the special features are presented in 1080i with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio and optional English subtitles.
'Top Gear: The Complete Season 16' is an entertaining show, that will even appeal to those that couldn't care less about cars. Though these episodes aren't quite as strong as previous seasons, they're still worth a look. The video is a bit uneven and the audio is rather basic, but both are certainly serviceable. Supplements are pretty slim, and while the disc is a little underwhelming, this is still a fun, worthwhile show.