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'Crash Course' Hits the Mark

'Top Gear' star Richard Hammond strikes out on his own

By Richard Whittaker, 11:35PM, Mon. Apr. 16, 2012

Putting the 'blazing mechanical inferno' into the new BBC America series 'Richard Hammond's Crash Course'
Putting the 'blazing mechanical inferno' into the new BBC America series 'Richard Hammond's Crash Course'
Courtesy of BBC America

If you watch BBC America, you'll know Richard Hammond. He's the short one from Top Gear, who hangs around with the loud one and the one that gets lost. And he's the one who has his own new TV show, Richard Hammond's Crash Course.

Actually, Hammond is already an extremely accomplished broadcaster and, unlike fellow Gearhead, professional goon Jeremy Clarkson, Hammond and his fellow amiable goof James May aka Captain Slow are actually extremely accomplished engineering experts and historians (Clarkson just like mouthing off and driving fast cars.) May has been off making several series of his own for the BBC, but Hammond gets the first crack at creating an original series for BBC America. Unsurprising, really: He has a sort of harmless charm combined with that slight cheekiness that has made him (in British broadcasting parlance) the housewife's choice.

Crash Course takes him out of the Top Gear setting but not too far. Never straying too far from the realm of engine grease and sump oil, each week presents him with a new driving challenge: Three days to master a vehicle he has never seen before. However, the engineering nuances of a Lambretta do not ensure riveting television, so Hammond is unleashed on increasingly vast and ludicrous beasts of engineering, like scrap yard cranes and airport firefighting equipment. The result is sort of a more hands-on version of Mega Movers, with added flop sweat.

It all hangs on the same persona that Hammond has lovingly crafted. Sometimes it takes advantage of his well-established love of tiny but sporty vehicles (and his equally well-recorded hatred for minivans) and sometimes it emphasizes his blinding engineering wonkiness, but it consistently catches that sort of lightly-stunned, 'Am I doing this?' charm that made him the beloved punching bag of Top Gear.

The first episode, in which Hammond an M1A2 Abrams tank for a trip around Fort Bliss, screened last night. A little sadly, it never truly finds its gears: Without being overly deferential to the US military, it really feels a little 'boys and their toys' to ever feel truly exciting. Episode two, however, revs the engine perfectly as our hero tries to get to grips with the three machines – the feller buncher, the dangle head processor, and the loader – that are the backbone of logging in Oregon. Maybe the reason it works better is because the machines are a little more alien: Maybe it's that Hammond co-opts them to create the world's biggest darts game (to be seen to be believed); Or maybe it's that he gets across the fact that these really big, really dangerous, really complicated machines are really, really, really hard to control.

Richard Hammond's Crash Course screens on BBC America, Mondays at 9pm Central. More details at www.bbcamerica.com/crash-course.

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