The Daily Mail is obsessed with bringing the new Top Gear to heel. They’re not the only ones. A multitude of blogs, websites, and news outlets have taken to indulging every bit of gossip about the new production, and every opportunity is taken to relish in embarrassing pictures or stories.
Whether it’s pictures of host Chris Evans throwing up beside the side of a race track, top-level resignations, executive arguments, accusations of control freakery against the hosts, reports of production setbacks, Evans and Matt Le Blanc falling out over ignorant, rather than controversial, stunt locations at the Cenotaph it seems not a week goes by without the headline ‘Top Gear in crisis’.
The first trailer for the revamped series was met with a vitriolic backlash that accused the ‘new’ show of being a pound shop knock-off; filled with forced humour and being a shadow of its former self (a robust verdict given it lasted just over a minute).
So why the hatred, even before it’s left the starting line in May?
For one, there’s an impassioned fanbase that sees anyone other than Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May as sacrilege.
The problem with that sort of stalwart defence is that the show was showing fatigue anyway. The controversies were becoming particularly unpleasant especially over the alleged Falklands reference number plate and the accusations of racism about the ‘Burma Special.’ The japery of days of past seemed a lot less innocent. Discussions about whether Clarkson should resign, or if the show was nearing its curtain call, were increasing as it reached its 13th birthday and 22nd season in 2015.
Would Clarkson, Hammond and May have gone gently into that good night? Given the monumental salaries each presenter was making, the niche that they had formed together and the increasingly international popularity of the Top Gear brand, would any of them have packed it in for an uncertain future despite the show’s frayed edges?
What’s a given is that controversy was a constant companion to the antics of the triumvirate and the way the show came to an abrupt ending, in the most ridiculous of circumstances, seemed entirely apt.
Could it have ended any other way? Probably not. Ultimately, it’s for the fans themselves to decide if they prefer this real-life Butch and Sundance shoot-out to the sulky, petering out of enthusiasm if they’d stayed on (that the trio filmed a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid homage the year before is one of life’s little ironies).
Although the trio may have found a new home with Amazon, the legacy of what they made with the BBC hangs in the balance. On the one hand, if Evans and co. fail then fans and spectators will get a confirmation that Clarkson, Hammond, and May really were Top Gear. Yet, if this happens, little good will come for the franchise except an ignominious end and a forever reminder of Clarkson’s disgrace over something that will seem tragically stupid in the future.
Evans, Matt LeBlanc, and their ensemble presenting team should get a chance to succeed and audiences should will them to do outstanding work. It will not only bury the controversy which Clarkson caused, but perhaps even add to the formula and history which the original three proved could work.
It’s no easy task for the new hosts and production team to separate the entity from the characters who made it and in turn made them. Nevertheless, those quick to indulge stories of the production being in trouble should remember that Top Gear existed in typically clunky BBC style for nearly 25 years prior to it reformatting in 2002.
What Evans and co. should take comfort in is it took until the 2007 ‘Polar Special’ (the third special, but the first of the grand ones everyone remembers) to solidify the awkward triptych as a comedy partnership both in our minds and theirs. The first series was a bare bones fumbling of the confidence to come, and it was not only lacklustre but featured the forgotten half-brother, Jason Dawe, who was quietly dropped in favour of May in the second series.
What the latest trailer has made the mistake of doing is to present the forthcoming series as business as usual. Perhaps the same company or team who made the spectacled previews over the last 13 years have remained. Whatever the reason, copycatting the jokes and style of old makes the new show look like a pastiche; like the new kid at a party cracking joke, after joke, after joke to try and fit in (but doesn’t).
The new-new show should get a chance, not least because it isn’t going anywhere. Top Gear should be entertaining. It should be fun. It existed prior to Clarkson, Hammond, and May and should continue to in some format providing it can be innovative.
It’s now a question of history. Clarkson et al. should be commended for keeping shtum and doing their own thing because they know what happens next with the original show is just as much about their legacy as it is about what they do next.