There’s no shortage of car related television on air. The problem with car related television, much like the problem with the rest of television, is that most of it is positively terrible. For every Top Gear out there, we have to suffer through the likes of Pimp My Ride, Bullrun (interesting concept, but horrifically over-dramatized), Car and Driver TV (it’s like listening to someone with no charisma read me an issue of Car and Driver while a car drives sedately around boring roads), and others. Now, I’ll give the very technical TV shows a pass, because even though they bore me to tears, with entire episodes dedicated to fixing a single issue, they are informative and if you do work on your own cars, then I can see it being useful. So while they’re dry, they’re actually worth something.
One of the newer car related TV shows to come out is the mishmash of vehicle-against-the-elements and a traditional survivalist television show, One Car Too Far. Discovery, most likely feeling the loss of Man vs. Wild, is trying to fill that hole in their lineup a little too obviously, even though they have the very compelling Amish Mafia hitting the airwaves soon. First, they hire on a clear Bear Grylls surrogate, this time not named after an animal, but with a very normal name--Gary Humphrey. He fits the bill; British ex-Special Forces, likable, resourceful, and never reluctant get dirty in order to accomplish his goal. Then, they scoured Southern California, trying to find the most pampered and obnoxious car enthusiast they could find, Bill Wu (actually, as my Googling has shown, a graduate of Bullrun). Now, normally I don’t object to this, being quite a bit pampered myself, but it is rather jarring to see the difference between an ex-Special Forces soldier and a SoCal food-obsessed car guy with frosted tips like it’s 1998, whose toiletry bag is as big as the bag Gary brings for the entire trip.
I said they had a goal to accomplish, and they do. They’re dropped in the middle of nowhere with a GPS tracker, which leads them to a 10 year old four cylinder Jeep Wrangler (though Jeep is a sponsor of the show and they don’t hide the fact that they’re driving a Wrangler, they oddly never come out and call it a Jeep Wrangler), which they then have to take through the assorted wildernesses and get to civilization within a given amount of time. It’s an interesting concept, even if it feels contrived, but in the case of any of these reality shows, the basis is always something someone thought up. It does often feel like someone was sitting around watching the Top Gear South America special (including some of the same locales) and thought “Hey, we could make an entire show out of this!” and then One Car Too Far was born.
Foolishly, perhaps, I was hopeful that I’d have something new to watch, specifically because I was feeling the loss of Bear Grylls--I was a huge fan of of Man vs. Wild. I watched the first episode and was really disappointed. The problem with most reality television is that they present drama and vitriol as real when it so often feels manufactured. And I did see a lot of that in the first episode. Here are two people so wholly incompatible that they hated each other almost instantly. Gary hating Bill more than Bill hating Gary, understandably--at one point, as Gary hacks away a path for the Jeep, he repeats over and over “Kill Bill, kill Bill”. Bill has enough love for himself for the both of them though, as he often wears an I Heart Wu hat. When Jeremy, James, and Richard bicker, it’s generally with real chemistry born from years of working together, and the arguments feel real and come from a genuine place. With these two, it felt like they put them together in hopes that they wouldn’t get along.
I shook my head as I forced myself through the first episode and gave it another chance with episode two. Thing did pick up. The two started to get along a little better, building chemistry, and making you actually care about their triumphs and failures. Though they are still two very incompatible people, they became able to put aside their differences in order to make it out of the harsh wilderness. When there’s a down time, like stopping for sleep or collecting water, their differences creep out again, but they’re mostly able to work together, if not harmoniously, but effectively.
Gary knows his way around a lot of situations. From finding animal droppings to use for cooking fuel, or mixing gasoline and sand to create a bit of improvised napalm to cook over, to using urine and a tarp to create a water distillation facility, he’s always able to find a way to keep Bill afloat and Bill always finds a way to complain about it. The fact that Gary is so resourceful and clever, even when using gasoline from the car and the spark plugs to start a fire, makes it a little hard to believe when he acts surprised that Bill suggests that they should put the heater on in the desert when the car was overheating or that when they found a radiator leak, the best way to jury-rig their way to the objective was to put an egg white from an egg that Gary found into it and let it cook in the tear and plug the hole (though I did find it curious that the one time they have eggs, the radiator started to leak, giving them an opportunity to try this tactic out). There are a few moments that are odd, like when Gary explains to Bill how to use the hands of your watch and the sun as a compass while he was wearing a Suunto, a digital watch that has a compass built in (really great watches for that kind of stuff, I have one myself), but overall, Gary knows what he’s doing and carries Bill along most of the way.
It’s not that Bill doesn’t bring anything to the table, which is one of the reasons this show actually works. Sure, he complains a lot, mostly about food (though he does have retractible chopsticks, which is pretty damn cool), but he did know the egg trick. When the Jeep broke an axle, he and Gary took an ax to a felled log and strapped it in, essentially using a log as a ski to replace a wheel. I mean, the A-Team did something similar with a plane once (it actually might have been MacGyver), but it’s certainly an outside the box thought. He also fixed a broken spark plug wire by bridging the gap with a live twig and some rubber tubing. And he’s damn good behind the wheel, taking on jungles, frozen expanses, rivers, and desert with aplomb.
And through the whole thing, they do face some real danger. Gary once fell into a crevasse, only saved by being tethered to the winch on the car. The Jeep almost took too deep a swim, and only stayed dry thanks to Gary shouting direction to Bill to get over a makeshift bridge they put together from dead logs. And they took the car down one of those sand dunes in the Atacama Desert where Richard Hammond’s Land Cruiser met its cruel fate. After a little while, they would start to mess with each other, a show of real friendship between the two, which in turn makes the show better. While the first season was shaky at times, it was good enough for me to finish it and now look forward to the next season. If you’re just jumping on for the second season, you’re probably going to see the show at its best. I think it’s worth giving it a try. Hopefully since the two have bonded, they’d have gotten over the initial awkwardness, and hopefully the production team can keep the situations from feeling too staged.
It manages to accomplish a pretty important goal for me, which is to allow a city-boy to vicariously enjoy a sanitized version of the great outdoors from to comfort of my living room sofa. It’s like watching a Subaru commercial. Sure, I want to pack my dog and my kayak and my friends and go into the woods and have a good old fashioned outdoorsy weekend getaway, but at the end of the day, when the opportunity arises, I may like dogs and kayaking, but I don’t have a dog or a kayak. And the Z4 would be terrible offroad. I need to make a friend with an SUV.