News Culture

TV Review: Jalopnik Vs. America

Can the 13-year-old car blogging juggernaut land the jump to the small screen?

“They say young people don’t care about cars anymore,” wrote Jalopnik editor Patrick George back in September. “They say the culture is dying. They say human driving doesn’t even have a future. You, the Jalopnik community of readers, know that isn’t true. You also know the last place to look for modern car culture is the vast wasteland that is television. But we think we can do car TV better—and so we did.”

So they did. That show is called “Car Vs. America,” and it debuted last night on Fusion, the network owned by Univision, which snapped up Gawker Media last year after it was Hulkamania’d out of existence by rampaging humanoid libertarian Peter Thiel, and which hopes to sink its corporate money funnel into those sweet, elusive millennials we’re always hearing about through the power of vertical integration.

The premise of the “Car Vs. America” is manifold. It’s meant to show that car culture in America is alive and well. It promises to do so by sending its two hosts—Jalopnik editors Mike Ballaban and Raphael Orlove—“around America in search of adventure in the weirdest, most wonderful, most questionable cars.” It will be done, we’re told, “in a way that’s in touch with the regular, ordinary folks just like you who make modern car culture happen every day.”

What’s not to like? Just a couple of fun-loving regular guys who love cars traveling around the country hanging out with other fun-loving regular guys who do crazy shit with cars. It’s a boilerplate formula, but if it’s been done, that’s because it’s a pretty good formula.

The problem is, that’s not what this show actually is. It might think it is. It might want to be. But in reality the predominant theme of the show isn’t regular guys having fun doing crazy shit with great cars. The predominant theme of the show is fear. Fear of the crazy shit, which would be bad enough, but even worse: fear of the people doing the crazy shit.

In the first episode, the hosts travel to North Carolina to try skidplate racing. Skidplate racing, if you’re not familiar with it, involves welding a thick metal plate to the back wheel of a front wheel drive beater, like a ski, and then racing the car with the ass end sliding all over the place. The thing goes sideways, as it were, when Ballaban and Orlove—both self-proclaimed “hipsters” who live in a “safe space” in Brooklyn—visit with Ron and Jeff Moser, described as “skidplate royalty.”

The “Moser brothers”—they’re actually uncle and nephew—are, let’s just say, great characters. The problem is, Ballaban and Orlove are visibly, palpably uncomfortable talking to them. They’re not playing this discomfort for comedy. In fact, they’re trying to cover it up and be cool. This results in a jaw-dropping exchange that should forevermore be shown in journalism schools, in the same way gruesome car crash videos are shown in driving schools.

The hosts are looking at Ron Moser’s skidplate car, which has a lot of names spray-painted on it, and a big white ribbon painted on the hood. “You’ve clearly got sponsorship,” Ballaban says, indicating the car, “because it says ‘Jaw’ on the front, and ‘Mom.’”

Ron replies, “Yeah, I got a lotta friends that have died. And you know, my little boy died, in 2005 with SIDS, and we got the infant loss ribbon, you know? And then around here is my cousin Redbone. He’s one that kinda taught me how to drive, and he passed away on my birthday. It was really, really had for me.”

At this, Ron looks genuinely stricken. A smile has become frozen across Orlove’s face. The music, abruptly shifts to something reflective and minor key.

“It gives meaning,” Ron says, about the names on his car. “I get out there and race for them. To keep their memory alive and whatnot.”

I know it’s tedious to evoke Anthony Bourdain. But the genius of Bourdain isn’t his dumb and now thankfully discarded Hunter S. Thompson persona. It’s his willingness to use his discomfort both for comic ends, and, to better illuminate what we’re seeing, to ask questions on behalf of the viewer. If it was Bourdain listening to this ghastly story, he would have dug in a little more, tried to get at the connective tissue between family and loss and cars in this small American town. As we see later, several of the other skidplate racers have names spray-painted on them too. People in this area are using this seemingly goofy form of racing to memorialize their dead. This is a good story. This is car culture.

But instead of asking about honoring dead friends and children with this battered wreck of a car about to be taken to a track to delight people of all ages, all one of the hosts can get out is, “And you have a great time doing it!”

There are no other real interviews with the actual people behind this race. There are a couple general questions nervously posed to random racers in the parking lot beforehand. They yield nothing. There is no effort to grasp technique, no attempt to understand why the Mosers are great at this, and what it means to be great at something so seemingly trivial.

Instead, what we get is a show in which the hosts—gratuitously leaning on the odious hipster nebbish crutch—try skidplate racing. They worry about getting hurt, marvel at how insane this is, and get in the cars and skid around slowly squealing in terror, despite the fact that the car can only go a few miles an hour. “Oh my god!” Orlove screams. “It’s insane!” “What are you doing?!”

Later, Orlove participates in an actual race with the parking lot people. The run-up to it consists of the hosts talking a lot about whether Orlove was going to die in said race. The organizer tells them, “The good thing about skid plate racing is you’re not going fast enough to get hurt.” The announcer tells the crowd, “It is very, very difficult to drive these cars two miles an hour, much less at race speeds.” When the race gets underway, Orlove spends the better part of it screaming, “Oh my god! It’s happening! Oh god!”

Somehow, he manages to survive, and for this he is greeted like a soldier returning home from the Battle of the Somme.

It’s hard not to watch this display and imagine what the other drivers, men from a harder place who spray paint the names of their dead onto cars and then crash them into each other, are thinking. It’s hard not to want to issue an apology on behalf of the the people of New York. We’re not all like this. We swear.

In the months preceding the premiere of “Car Vs. America,” Jalopnik wrote a lot about all the times they bashed existing car TV shows. They’ve done it a lot, and rightly so. That stuff is mostly witless, contrived garbage, full of self-consciously “colorful” cable tv characters and ginned-up reality show tension. The intent here was to cut through the bullshit, venture out into the real world and talk to real people about the glory of car culture.

That’s easy on paper. In reality, making something good is really hard. And if there’s a pleasure in watching “Car Vs. America,” it’s the show’s unwitting indictment of blogger culture—that tendency to value knowingness over curiosity, to make everything about yourself, and to cover discomfort and ignorance with easy irony and self-deprecation. In this, the show affords us the rarest of chances: to watch a website try to do something its been nailing other people for for years, and then fail. I don’t know Orlove and Ballaban. They seem nice. But this feels karmically owed.

What is the point of this show? Is it to delve into car culture? Because if that’s the aim, the interviews and research have to be far better. It is to connect with “the regular, ordinary folks”? If so, they need hosts that are comfortable with regular, ordinary folks. Is it to do crazy stunts? If so, the stunts need to be actually crazy. The hosts need to risk something, not just pretend they are.

Otherwise what we’ll be left with isn’t a ballsy, brainy, funny, heartfelt, and yes, sorely needed celebration of Great American car culture. It will be just another piece of content, cheaply produced and haphazardly conceived and ultimately bound for the great swirling Chinese garbage island of discarded, unloved and unlovable #content. Only this one’s got cars.

Joe Keohane is a writer and editor in New York presently contemplating a profile of the Moser brothers.