Saturday, March 28, 2015

Firing Clarkson and Why Top Gear Needs a Reboot

This week the end of Jeremy Clarkson's involvement with Top Gear made world news.  Call it a firing, sacking, mutual agreement to part ways, conscious uncoupling, whatever; the event likely signaled the demise of the most popular car show… in the WORLD. 

I for one, am glad.

Not that I won't miss the show.  I have rarely missed an episode on BBC America, going back as far as 2007, and even watch past episodes on Netflix.  Originally a staid show similar to Motorweek, the current iteration elevated automotive journalism to an art, combining memorable cars and adventures with epic cinematography and a soundtrack of music, tire squeal, and operatic burst of exhaust noise. 

But a large part of the appeal was the stars of the show, Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond.  They made the show engaging and fun with their banter, opinions on cars, and their adventures.  They came across as three, average middle age, slightly buffoonish guys who love cars and their chemistry together made the show work… until it didn't. 

I'm not sure when it happened, but over the last several seasons Top Gear became stale.  It was like The Three Stooges.  The settings were different, the cars changed, but you knew basically what was going to happen.  I wonder if the stars knew this.  They did more adventures, the next seeming designed to top the last, and their personalities became more extreme.  But while James May and Richard Hammond became more of their Captain Slow and the Hamster personas, it was Jeremy Clarkson's behavior that became increasingly belligerent. 

It's not that Clarkson wasn't controversial to begin with.  His persona is loud, boisterous, given to absolutes, with the sense of humor of a 12 year old boy.  He's made a career out of offending just about everyone from Americans, Mexicans, Germans, Belgians, the French, Romanians, Bulgarians, etc.  But somewhere he crossed the line from controversial to offensive.  Not just in a manner that raises the hackles on our sometimes overly politically-correct sensitivities, but by using racial slurs that are not uttered in society unless you are wearing a white sheet and burning crosses.  It was almost like he was challenging the BBC to fire him.  After several incidents that led to gentle hand-slapping, he took his behavior a step too far by striking a Top Gear producer in what has been labeled "the fracas". 

Was it the cold cuts, issues in his personal life, or a desire to get out of his contract?  No one outside the people who were there can truly know what happened between Clarkson and the producer, Oisin Tymon.  Backed in a corner, the BBC did the responsible thing--they canceled the three remaining episodes, launched an investigation of the incident, and let Clarkson go.  This move was met with outrage.  Fans from around the world have petitioned to get Clarkson reinstated and many people, including Prime Minister David Cameron have called on the BBC to reinstate him.   

While unpopular, firing Clarkson was the right decision.  It also may have been the best decision because it saved us from having to watch Top Gear circle the drain.  Time will tell what happens to the show.  We will soon learn if James May and Richard Hammond return with a new host.  But if they return, it won't be the same.  Inserting a new person to replace Clarkson would be like The Who continuing on without Keith Moon.  Top Gear needs to be reinvented, either with a new format or a fresh take.  Other icons of British culture like James Bond and Doctor Who have thrived after a reboot.  Top Gear can too.