From blog to the BBC: Gizmodo’s geek TV show is here

But does ‘extreme’ gadget testing make good television?

By Rob Walker

If there was ever any doubt, blogs like Gizmodo have long since proven that there’s a healthy appetite out there for news and reviews of all manner of gadgetry. But it doesn’t immediately follow—or at least, not to me—that such material would also make for good TV. So when I read that Gizmodo was going to give this strategy a go, and that its impressive founding editor, Joel Johnson, would be involved, I had to check it out.

The first one-hour episode of “Gizmodo: The Gadget Testers” aired Monday night on BBC America. “You are about to see gadgets, gizmos, devices and appliances,” the opening announced, “tested to the extreme!” How… exciting?

Johnson has explained the show’s approach as “Top Gear” for gadgets. And, in fact, the premiere followed a minimarathon of that popular British reality show’s most recent episodes, which involved its gearhead hosts grinding secondhand cars across a variety of absurdly rough terrains in Africa. “Gizmodo: Gadget Testers” did seem to be channeling something of that spirit as it introduced its scheme for testing three minivideo cameras designed for action-sports use.

Along with Johnson, two fit and witty British guys named Greg Foot and O.J. Borg (who frankly seemed like the same guy, twice) started off by strapping themselves on to street-luge boards and zooming down a windy road with their cameras. Johnson crashed. Next, each man strapped on a camera and tussled briefly with a sumo wrestler. This sounds needlessly "Jackass"-like, but it wasn’t a bad way to launch a gadget-centric show: It added a little manufactured drama and emotion to what could have been cold geekery. 

Watching this right after “Top Gear” interestingly revealed some differences in our relationships with gizmos, as opposed to cars. Cars are actually dangerous, so putting them through outlandish paces feels like a natural extension of their essence; in contrast, associating a video camera with physical risk takes more effort. Paradoxically, cars are easier to love: You root for the machinery on “Top Gear,” and the cunning and cantankerous hosts who seem able to keep it running against preposterous odds.

But most of the newer gadgetry we get excited about these days is more opaque, and less romantic: When your cellphone dies, it just dies, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The key moment on “Gizmodo,” for me, was the completely gratuitous decision to have the sumo wrestler hurl each camera into the ground. Face it: You’ve had the urge to do the same thing with at least one of your fancy gadgets.

The other surprising thing is that while these “tests” don’t sound very practical—how often will a 370-pound man try to smash your video camera?—the segment actually managed to extract useful evaluations from its silly stunts, and make a convincing case for a $300 GoPro HERO2 as the best camera. It was a satisfying conclusion.

Unfortunately, the show was only half over. A second half-hour segment testing vacuum cleaners—on debris scattered along an outdoor stairway trail, and on chicken feathers in a coop—was less than gripping. Despite rapid-fire editing and aggressive music cues, the hosts seemed less imperiled than simply humiliated. Excitable descriptions of suction specs tilted into self-parody, and introducing the show’s one female host, Veronica Belmont, on the vacuum challenge seemed at least a little questionable.

Still, the debut showed promise. Probably Gizmodo would work better at a half-hour. And while the gonzo theatrics that result in hosts enduring street-luge wipeouts, or a sumo body slam seemed absurd at first, upon reflection they’re vital. This speaks to the simultaneous lust for and frustration with gadgets that so many of us feel: Our relationship with technology may not always count as “extreme,” but it can certainly feel ridiculous.