As Jeremy Clarkson's future hangs in the balance, so does the fate of Top Gear. But even as the show treads upon shaky ground, automotive journalism continues to follow in its footsteps. In the past, automotive journalism needed Top Gear's influence. But much like its revered host, the show is now doing more harm than good.
During the first few years after its 2002 reboot, Top Gear's impact was quite positive. At long last, automotive enthusiasts had a proper, well-sorted television series that wasn't concerned with documenting some half-assed restoration. It also packed a much bigger punch than consumer advice-driven shows, like Motorweek in the US.
"Simultaneously, as Top Gear's popularity grew, so did its influence on automotive journalism. The result was uncouth banality."
But more importantly, Top Gear glued casual viewers to their couches, dishing out a fresh hour of action-packed entertainment featuring Nolan-esque cinematography, and hosted by an irreverent trio of rogues. Audiences had never seen a show quite like it. And perhaps it even made them think of their own cars as something more than a rolling metal meat bucket only good for polluting the environment and getting them to work. No other car-related show had that potential before.
The show had the right recipe for success, and its popularity spread like wildfire. By 2006, its global viewership eclipsed the entire US population by roughly 50 million people. Simultaneously, as Top Gear's popularity grew, so did its influence on automotive journalism. The result was uncouth banality.
Everyone, from competing television shows and aspiring YouTube reviewers, started copying Top Gear's trademark cinematography and presentation. Magazines underwent expensive redesigns with glossy pages, glitzy graphics and detail-oriented, high-def photography in a bid to cop some of the show's feel. These changes were arguably welcome.
But then the show started to make an impact on the actual writing and reporting. While an irreverent tone has always been a staple of automotive journalism, many journalists puffed out their chests and desperately tried to ape Jeremy Clarkson's macho, politically-incorrect obtuse style. And it's been intolerable.
The following excerpts have all been pulled from various sources, including a Jeremy Clarkson-penned review from The Sunday Times and a review segment from Top Gear. In the interest of neutrality, links to each excerpt will not be given here. Try to decide which is Clarkson and which is someone emulating:
But what if you were tied down and forced to drive one of these cars like a North Korean political prisoner?
It's right that it's as orange as an air hostess.
...unless the only precious cargo you transport is named Fendi or Birkin, we wouldn't expect much use out of the tiny back seats.
Unfortunately this doesn't work any more, because today BMW is filling its cars with sex scenes as well.
It's hard to tell unless there's an answer key lying around. So here's the answer: the second and final excerpts were from Clarkson.
Somehow, someway, meathead humor clearly permeates throughout the world of automotive writing. That's just been demonstrated. And sadly, it makes automotive journalists and the enthusiasts they so often represent look like a bunch of nut-brained apes hanging around in Darwin's waiting room, praying for thumbs.
It begs the question: why and how exactly does Top Gear pull in so many casual viewers? If it's because of Jeremy Clarkson's controversial humor like so many claim, then casual viewers must enjoy laughing at him, not with him. And, by proxy, are those viewers laughing at car enthusiasts as well?
To wrap things up, I'm going to break the fourth wall I've been writing behind this entire column. I'm going to end with this statement: I by no means think Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear should ride off into the sunset for good. I don't hate Jeremy Clarkson, and I admittedly went through my own nasty phase where I thought I could wear his nicotine-stained Levi's around. I get the appeal. But we have to have priotitize and reward originality and innovation. This is the perfect time for automotive journalism to take a step back and rethink the impression Clarkson and Top Gear have made on it.