TV | February 11, 2021 6:00 am

Dax Shepard’s “Top Gear America” Rethinks the Overwhelming Maleness of Car Shows

The show is bucking stereotypes about car culture and masculinity in general

top gear america
Rob Corddry, Dax Shepard and Jethro Bovington on "Top Gear America"
MotorTrend

Top Gear America is here to disrupt the car show formula. The new season of the series, which was inspired by the long-running BBC series Top Gear, made its debut on January 29 to MotorTrend’s streaming app. With actors Dax Shepard and Rob Corddry and British car enthusiast Jethro Bovington at the helm, the new iteration of the show sets out to do things differently. 

When you think of vehicle-themed reality programming, shows like Pimp My Ride and American Chopper may come to mind. Examples like these have proven valuable in the cluttered television landscape, but they also carry with them a tried-and-true macho aesthetic that reinforces a formulaic and outdated idea of masculinity. 

This version of Top Gear doesn’t necessarily break the mold entirely — each episode is chock full of cool cars, crazy race sequences and a fair amount of trash talk — but at its heart is an awareness of what maleness is and what it’s becoming, as opposed to what it was. And we have Dax Shepard to thank for that. Known for his acting and his wildly popular Armchair Expert podcast, he’s openly obsessed with the balancing act that comes with maintaining his masculinity while projecting kindness and authenticity into the world.  

“I didn’t live with my dad,” he tells InsideHook. “So no one was patting me on the back saying, ‘You’ve done it. You’re a man.’ I was in search of male approval at all time.”

Like most latchkey kids growing up in the ’80s, Shepard looked for that approval elsewhere. “I was willing to jump BMX bikes,” he continues. “Other kids thought that was brave and masculine. And then it turned into motorcycles and then cars. I wasn’t afraid to drift out of the parking lot in high school. I think I came to it, believing I just loved it. But I’ve come to realize it was also a real way for me to win male approval.” 

It’s refreshing to hear Shepard being so open about his origin story, and the ways in which his need for male approval pushed him into daredevil territory is indicative of the type of pressure young men can feel early in life. The pervasive notion that we’re not supposed to express our feelings or be vulnerable out of fear of being perceived as weak is something that feels very John Wayne, but it’s a nut that is still being cracked in 2021.  

For those familiar with his podcast, Shepard has cultivated a reputation for being an open book, whether it’s revealing the details behind the marriage counseling he and Kristen Bell have sought out or his recent drug relapse after 16 years of sobriety. Armchair Expert has been described as a weekly therapy session for its audience of millions and the celebrity guests (from Bill Gates to Justin Timberlake) he’s had on. 

Top Gear America is a different sort of therapy session. Instead of giving a voice to his guests’ life-shaping traumas of the past, we’re presented with three men who are given free rein to act out their boyish car-driving dreams. They completely obliterate a vehicle in the first minutes of the first episode. Then they tap into some Cannonball Run nostalgia as they take some kooky vehicles on an overlanding trek across precarious lava-caked terrain. 

“It’s the freedom of driving times a million,” Corddry says. “Because it’s that freedom you had when you were a kid, that freedom of being able to just ride your bike all day long or something like that. But instead, we’re given something very big and powerful and asked to do crazy things with it. It all provokes a very childlike response.”

The freedom they’re given to decide what exactly those crazy things will be results in a delightfully precious marriage of cars, comedy and chaos. When Shepard recently visited Jimmy Kimmel Live!, he said, “What I love about the show is safety’s third. […] We’re like chimpanzees. We’ll do what you’re supposed to do for a while. But then we just want to hit it with clubs and stuff.” 

Even viewers who are not car people may find value in the series. The camaraderie of the team adds an unexpected personal element. Instead of a whole bunch of chest-puffery, Top Gear America winds up being more than just a celebration of cars — it’s a celebration of three male friends comfortable enough to allow their authentic selves to shine through.

But make no mistake about it: Top Gear America is also here to remind us that driving is fun, giving viewers a chance to live vicariously through our hosts as the rest of us continue to hunker down at home. 

“I sat down with my wife to watch [the show],” Shepard says. “From the look on her face, she was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna have to get through this new show you love so much.’ But she, right out of the gate, was laughing hysterically! She was like, ‘I love it. I can’t believe I love a car show!’” 

The show depicts the car community a bit differently than we’re accustomed to, presenting a more accessible perspective on a culture that has continued to struggle with the “boys’ club” ideals of the past. 

“I have since tried to downplay the aggro side of this culture,” Shepard says. “I was just in the sand dunes, and I came back to camp and I was blasting Michael Jackson’s ‘P.Y.T.’ And a dude in the next camp was like, ‘You listen to Michael Jackson in the dunes?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, man, I love it.’” 

“Wait,” he corrects himself, laughing. “It was even worse. I was listening to ‘Human Nature’ by Michael Jackson.”

Top Gear America is now streaming exclusively on the MotorTrend app.