It’s the finest time of the year, race season. After Sunday night’s Daytona 500 the NASCAR season is in full swing, and with that comes the latest batch of new branding and marketing attempts to cast the net of fandom to a potential new audience. Much like you, I saw the commercials on social media and have been clamoring to review this midweek distraction. NASCAR racing branded comedy? Got to be worth a shot, right?
The Crew debuted on Netflix as an exclusive series on February 15th to coincide with the beginning of the NASCAR race season, with ten 30-minute episodes released in a binge worthy package. The series includes NASCAR branding while featuring stock footage and cameo appearances by NASCAR personalities throughout. The show’s main focus is the fictional Bobby Spencer Racing team Crew Chiefed by Kevin Gibson, played by former King of Queens star Kevin James. All the parts of a simple NASCAR style race team are present, with the typical sitcom nuances in both comedy structure and casting. There’s the countryfied old school mechanic, the nerdy fem-coded engineer, the handsome and dumb racecar driver, the adorable slow burn love interest of the main character, and of course the new age outsider team owner shaking things up to the chagrin of the established staff. As the 70 year old team owner Bobby Spencer steps down to retire in Hawaii, his young Stanford educated painfully millennial daughter Catherine is taking over the boss duties, and constantly clashes with Kevin and the rest of the crew as the team struggles as a NASCAR mid-pack organization.
Alright, so not the most creative idea, and one we have seen many many times before in racing fiction. It also sucks that there’s a laugh track, but I’ll try not to focus too much on the late 90s sitcom features. The episode premises stay within the confines of a race team, but this should NOT be considered a proper “racing program,” more like a sitcom with a racing set dressing. Sure, they’ll talk about what happened in yesterday’s race or use a word salad of NASCAR-y terms to push the story along, but it’s really more about the interpersonal relationships of this small cast. After watching about 5 episodes so far there have been almost no racing scenes, but that’s probably a good thing as there’s no lame recreations of a race to critique or shotty camera work to complain about. This is a show that knows what it is and more importantly knows what it is not. The cast of characters are good for a laugh, especially if you make peace with what’s going to be delivered. That’s a very important notion by the way, as you might get frustrated with the racing storylines without that distinction. I’m not a film or television expert, but it is very clear to me that race fans didn’t write this series. While technically proficient, the dialogue and racing references used show a text book regurgitation of NASCAR vernacular, but not a true comprehension of it. For example, as Kevin is talking with the retiring team owner, they reminisce about the past successes of the team. Kevin remarks that a few years ago the team “opened the season winning Daytona” which while a technically correct phrase, the sentence would sound much different out of the mouth of an actual racing guy. Tampa Bay didn’t “win the game at the end of the NFL season,” they won the big game/Super Bowl! This isn’t the only example of that sort of thing, and it doesn’t bog down the flow of the program, but if you’re looking for the heart and soul of racing put into comedic form, quite frankly Talladega Nights laps this attempt 5 times over.
VERDICT: The Crew from Netflix is a mildly amusing attempt to bring traditional NASCAR fans into the streaming media service and perhaps provide younger fans an old school situation comedy format with 21st century storylines. The jokes and storylines could be interchanged to meet any sort of setting idea but is decorated with enough NASCAR branding and stock footage cuts to make most hardcore fans sit up and take notice. The tech driven social media savvy millennial daughter with no respect for the “old ways” of NASCAR will be irksome in its delivery, but the narrative of a semi-antagonist is hard to avoid as Kevin James’ complete comedy act revolves around him being flustered and overwhelmed. Some jokes will hit, some jokes will not, but if you turn off your brain and relax, it is more than possible for you to have a good time. Cameo appearances by NASCAR drivers like Austin Dillion, Cole Custer, and the extremely charismatic Ryan Blaney will keep traditional race fans engaged, but the rest of the writing and references won’t quite scratch that itch of a proper racing comedy that many of us have been sorely needing. In the messy pack racing reality of streaming comedy shows, The Crew might not be anything more than a charter holding Top-25 ride…but after this year’s Daytona 500, I’m more than willing to back an underdog. Boogity Boogity………Boogity.