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Review: /DRIVE on NBC Sports – Season 5

Ross Ballot November 28, 2018 Featured, TV Shows No Comments

The age of the internet being available anytime and anywhere has allowed the world of automotive film media to evolve into one of diverse, ever-growing outlets of perpetually varying quality. In one corner lies the new-age YouTube “shows” covering everything from vlogs to publication-backed productions and everything in-between. In the other lives long-standing television stalwarts with familiar names like Top Gear.

Somewhere in the middle — and falling directly into the overlapping part of the internet/television Venn diagram — is /DRIVE, a show that began its life as an internet experiment. It’s also the evolution of of the various hosts and their other existing work, and it’s only continued to evolve ever since. Sometime after becoming one of the early attempts to test the paywall model, the show eventually moved to a mainstay on NBC Sports. Now on the tail end of its fifth season, /DRIVE returned earlier this fall to a familiar formula, a duo of new hosts, and the automotive and production goodness we’ve come to expect from it.

With the departure of The Smoking Tire’s Matt Farah, the crew turned to his own TST partner Zack Klapman and Jalopnik’s Kristen Lee to join in on the fun. Any time a show undergoes a shake up in its hosts there’s the possibility for something to go amiss. As we’ve seen recently on Top Gear, it can be quite difficult to nail the post-changeover formula. But /DRIVE has figured it out. It’s certainly not a show without criticism, but the it’s one that continues to be strong as a whole. This show brings something to the table for every sort of enthusiast while opening the viewer’s eyes to many new things in the process.

Last year, I reviewed Season 4 of /DRIVE and left with the feeling of a show that had the production quality, charisma, and viewing enjoyment of the glory days of Top Gear. Albeit with a lower budget and everything that comes with that limiter. Even that I’m comparing /DRIVE with TG speaks to exactly the kind of show that TangentVector has made in its fifth go round.

While it isn’t quite up to par when it comes to some of the finer elements like high-dollar helicopter shots or wild over-the-top post-production editing, it’s damn close given the allocated resources. Yet, so as to punch my expectations in the face, even the intro of the newest season is freshly polished. It makes a statement from the start that this show is made by people who truly care about cars. In short, this is how you produce proper automotive television.

The season begins with the crew exploring “‘A’ Car of the Year,” delving into the concept of how and why the print publications choose to award the cars they do. In the process the hosting trio of Alex Roy, Mike Spinelli, and Chris Harris pick the few vehicles they’d nominate for such an award.

Though a bit unsorted, the episode does bring some good points to the table and, of course, makes for some interesting and exciting testing …both purposeful and not. I can’t speak to the vitality of stuffing inflatable animals into a McLaren 720S. A demonstration to show how much quicker the Audi RS3 is than the Mazda6, however, is a true eye-opener. As is the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk any time it’s on camera. Harris, Spinelli, and Roy work well together in this episode, and at this point get along like old friends. Because they are.

Episode 1 also yields the funniest bit of the entire season. Harris berates an unsuspecting Spinelli for a seemingly purposeless matter of pedantry. It must have tested the production crew’s ability to not laugh through the scene, and it makes for hysterical television. In fact, the Spinelli/Harris combo has that old-school feel of buddy-buddy shit talking banter that’s vital to a show like this. A show that doesn’t delve too deeply into tech specs.

Right from the start, we re-realize just how well /DRIVE’s shots are executed. Episode 2, “LA Domestic,” nails this but in a very different way compared to the rest of the season. Rather than the beauty shots that have come to be the show’s norm, this episode takes a more documentary-styled angle in exploring the Los Angeles street racing scene, the nearby ArtCenter, and the newfound builders and automaker pumping out cars in the LA region alongside the West Coast culture.

The episode serves as a good eye-opener for those of us who don’t live in the immediate vicinity of the greater-Los Angeles area. It also does an admirable job of covering a wide variety of subjects in a relatively short period of time. From going behind the scenes of the street-racing sideshows to studying the future of the automotive world at a premiere design school, the episode swings over to the world of ludicrously expensive and detailed Porsches with Singer’s heavenly creations.

There’s a lot going on and it blends it all seamlessly. Kristen Lee makes an appearance and effortlessly covers the innovation happening at ArtCenter. Her time on camera bodes well for the future of the show, while expanding its reach and bringing a fresh face to the fold.

By episode 3, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the season is leaning on a documentary-heavy visual style. The program takes us inside the evolution of technology and innovation-forward Porsches. Think early Turbos moving to the 959 and, eventually, the 918.

Luckily, the fourth episode eschews this feeling entirely, taking us to three very different parts of the country to put on display the ever-evolving world of accessible motorsports. Though the hosts were certainly having a good time in the first three episodes, it’s in Episode 4 where they really start to have fun.

Roy’s Power Racing Series is the most laughably Mario Kart-like thing I’ve seen that isn’t in a video game. Klapman’s Club Loose segment makes me want to go slide a car now. Finally, Spinelli’s Pikes Peak bit puts the most iconic hillclimb on camera and shows us just how diverse it really is. You’ll also see just how much it’s progressed. The episode is entertaining in a very different way from the three preceding it, and just makes you want to drive.

Oregon, the 5th episode, seeks to bring a true sense of adventure. Viewers are taken to the Oregon Trail in an attempt to bring out the desire to explore and see new sights. It’s a bit forced and directionless, as if they had a start and endpoint but had to fill in the gaps. Regardless, the take-aways from the vehicles are legitimate and the hosts do a good job of showing us just how different three means of overland travel can be.

As a die-hard off-roader, I wanted a bit more from the episode on the technical wheeling side of things. Given the allotted time though, they cover a ton of ground and manage to get a lot of footage cut down to show us just how far the trip took them.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to view episode 6, but from the stills it seems that French cars and culture were adequately covered. This includes everything from Bugattis to the new Alpine A110 and many of the country’s influential older cars as well.

Everything that /DRIVE strives to achieve comes together in the season finale: LeMans. It’s a proper hour-long road trip special showcasing both country and cars in a way that works to highlight and bring about the appeal in both. Taking full advantage of the longer time slot means the pacing feels more appropriate in this episode. This shows in both how much detail the hosts are afforded when describing their respective means of travel and in how long reviews and gags can go without feeling like we only saw a snippet of what actually happened.

This final episode proves to be another installment in an ever-lengthening list of why I need to see this amazing race in person. It’s also another example of why this is not so much about the destination as it is the journey.

The episode ends with Harris providing commentary over a season-ending “what we saw and what we learned” narrative, which is absolute gold. He summarizes exactly what this show is about: inspiring people to love cars, and the culture and community that come along with them.

With the LeMans Special, this is absolutely nailed.

As with last year’s review, there’s a ton of eye candy presented on the show. This includes something for everybody. A quick rundown of vehicular screen time reveals the McLaren 720S, Singer 911, Porsche 918, Porsche 959, Ariel Nomad, Audi RS3, Trackhawk, Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, and even the Mazda6. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, by the way.

Each car is captured beautifully. Each one is on the screen for a purpose. The b-roll shots match the narrative and story perfectly. This creates a crucial synchrony.

Taken as a whole, Season 5 gives the viewer a hopeful feeling that the show will continue, and keep evolving. Allowing its new hosts to grow into and with the show will complement its solid existing bones. There’s absolute potential for it to become a long-standing cornerstone of automotive programming. But it does beg the question: can one show cover everything?

Documentary, entertainment, road-trip specials, etc… /DRIVE strives to do all of that. And it does it well, but it needs more time per episode to truly to be able to spread the content evenly.

It’s not all perfect, of course.

The studio bit continues to be worth complaint. As I wrote last year, it eats up valuable time that could be put to better use. While it’s mildly useful for setting up a story or episode premise, it still feels semi-forced and light on content and visual excitement. The pacing just feels a bit wrong for the visual excitement that follows

If anything, this show is crying out for a full hour slot. Twenty-two minutes (give or take) simply isn’t enough time to cover everything they aim to achieve. Still, the team have done great work in turning it into a truly enjoyable show for its fifth season. The hosts are more comfortable than ever, and they’ve hit a stride that looks to be sustainable for a long run life.

Though the loss of Farah’s hosting presence and familiarity can be felt throughout, the current crew (new hosts included) and formula feel like one that has legs to it. The hosts seem to have fun. This is something absolutely vital for a show that’s not as clinical in its approach as other information-driven programs.

Should they work out the few minor bugs, /DRIVE will continue to be a truly enjoyable piece of entertainment. Not just for enthusiasts, but for any one with even a passing interest in automobiles and adventure. Which, incidentally, is exactly what /DRIVE itself showcases best.

Season 5 of /DRIVE can be found on YouTube TV, or on cable. If neither is available to you, keep an eye on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

All images courtesy of /DRIVE.