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Reviewed by Will Harris
lthough it tends to get a bit repetitious writing reviews for these “Top Gear” sets, especially given that it seems like there’s another one coming out every time you turn around, it must be said that the consistent quality of the show makes it always worth the time and effort to pull something together. With Season 14 and 15 of the series, Messrs. Clarkson, Hammond, and May, along with the unidentified driving object known as The Stig, have once again offered up a great deal of vehicular information in the most engaging and amusing manner possible.
If you’ve not seen “Top Gear” before, it’s a mixture of car news, test drives of new vehicles, lengthy journeys across difficult terrain by the three hosts in an attempt to see who’ll finish first, and other assorted tasks and/or tests, many of which must be seen to be believed. In Season 14, James turns a caravan (read, “trailer”) into an airplane, the guys build their own electric cars, and, in the so-called “South America Special,” they travel from Bolivia up to Chile, each driving a secondhand off-road vehicle which A) was bought in Bolivia, and B) cost less than £3,500. In Season 15, James drives a Toyota onto a volcano, the gentlemen attempt to find the best car that’s both good on the racetrack and to transport a family, and in one of the most hilarious segments of any “Top Gear” episode I’ve ever seen, Jeremy attempts to test the worth of the three-wheeled Reliant Robin and ends up turning the vehicle sideways more times than you can count. Also funny in Season 15 is when the guys try and mostly fail to prove their worth as chauffeurs.
As for the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment, which never fails to be an interesting exercise whether you’re actually familiar with the star or not (and if you’re not an Anglophile, the claims to fame of some of these individuals may leave you baffled), the end of Season 14 sees the current car – a Chevrolet Lacetti – retired in favor of a Kia Cee'd at the beginning of Season 15. And by “retired,” I mean that it received a Viking burial by having a factory chimney detonated atop it. It’s actually somewhat of a failure, as the car is left peeking out from the rubble, but it’s the thought that counts. Of the stars in Season 14, the ones who’ll mean the most to Americans will be Eric Bana, Guy Ritchie, and Michael Sheen (though even the latter is enough of a character actor that you might not know him by name), but Season 15 blows all of them out of the water by presenting the one-two punch of Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise, who stopped by in the midst of their “Knight and Day” press blitz. Even if Cruise is crazy nowadays, it’s still pretty awesome to see the star of “Days of Thunder” once again racing around a track.
In closing, as ever, I cannot help but underline the fact that, although I am about as far from being a “car guy” as one is likely to get, I nonetheless find “Top Gear” to be one of the most consistently entertaining and, indeed, educational series offered by the BBC. Clarkson, Hammond, and Hay definitely don’t dumb it down, speaking to the established automobile aficionado rather than the casual fan, but their camaraderie, their good humor, and their willingness to do just about anything for good television makes their series a joy to watch even as they finish their 15th lap.
Special Features: When it comes to “Top Gear” releases, some of the items described on the DVD boxes as “extras” are really just additional episodes of the show that simply weren’t considered part of the proper season for some reason or other. An example of this is Season 14’s “Polar Special,” wherein the trio crosses the North Pole using a combination of motor vehicles and a dog sled. Also on the Season 14 set is an audio commentary for the team’s “South America Special,” a behind-the-scenes look at the celebrity laps, and short features entitled “Electric Wind Tunnel,” “James’s Jumpers,” “James on Caravans,” and “Lancia Breakdown.” The Season 15 set isn’t quite as full, but it still offers “James May’s Journey,” further behind-the-scenes footage of “Celebs in a Reasonably Priced Car” (though it’s notable that there’s nothing from Cameron Diaz or Tom Cruise), and various outtakes and extended scenes.