It might seem unlikely, but a new popular television genre has emerged: watching people work on cars. MTV's Pimp My Ride does not mean at all what it sounds like, the title being street slang for "fix up my car." Each episode starts by choosing a teenager who drives an embarrassing wreck. We then follow as top mechanics and customizers transform the junker into the pride of the main drag. It's a Cinderella story for guys.
The Discovery Channel's Monster Garage gives "maverick mechanics" a challenge, such as changing an SUV into a garbage truck. The show follows the model of a game show, with rules (a time limit, a budget) and competition. (At the end, the SUV competes with a real garbage truck on emptying garbage cans.)
The best of the genre, though, has to be American Chopper, about the custom building of motorcycles. Paul Sr., the muscled, mustachioed proprietor of Orange County Choppers, makes his "theme bikes" (such as a motorcycle to honor POWs and MIAs) with the help of some master builders.
But also on the job is his son Mikey, a slacker type who makes mistakes and aggravates his dad. The pair's bickering-and bleeped-out expletives-may be humorous, bothersome, and touching (as Mikey pleads what he learned in high-school psych classes, "Why don't you accept me for what I am?" but admits that getting yelled at is "the only way I'm going to learn").
The rather dysfunctional interplay between father and son humanizes all of the high-tech engineering, reminding us that all of this machinery is grounded right back in the always-interesting human condition.