Is it cheating to review The Grand Tour after waiting first to see the second series of new-new Top Gear?
Of course, but there’s a point to it. Matt LeBlanc’s second stab at keeping TG on life support was given renewed purpose with the departure of Chris Evans. The ginger-topped car aficionado was a constant annoyance to nearly everyone who didn’t enjoy getting shouted at by a perennial teenager.
Recoil as most did at Evans trying to be Jeremy Clarkson, the departed triptych faced the precisely the same problem as they left the familiar waters of the BBC. To many, Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond’s brand of entertainment was a none too different form of Marmite. They excelled, to the befuddlement of many, as household names by embarking on a middle-aged indulgence of immaturity.
When Clarkson got sacked (his contract didn’t get renewed, technically), even his fans said that it was an appropriate end to a career of faux pas and waning talent. When his colleagues jumped ship with him, including producer Andy Wilman, there were mixed feelings that although the BBC had lost its star pulling power, it did the right thing, all while putting Top Gear was put out of its fatiguing misery.
The Grand Tour was always a certainty. The quartet was never going to commit television harikari and, to their credit, got back on the bandwagon quickly. So began one of the most eagerly anticipated returns of modern tv, as well as endless speculation on whether the presenters could survive without Top Gear to prop them up.
The answer is a mixed bag. The unseen uncle in the attic, Andy Wilman, has brought more of the old school to the new outing than the trio themselves. The visuals continue to create avant-garde vehicular art. The music, the format and even the opening credits all feel like Top Gear – and it’s no bad thing because it develops and improves without homaging.
Where Wilman lets the side down is by giving increasing artistic control to Clarkson. The gags are too much the same as if someone sat and lazily tried to copy a friend’s homework in school. ‘The American’ is a boorish, less novel version of the Stig. The introductions, sign-offs and even the racetrack are nigh on carbon copies with a twist.
The whole show is too self-aware of its monetary worth to be ironic, even if that is the aim. Where The Grand Tour has dramatically misstepped is to indulge the best of Top Gear without any innovation. The format continues to be stale, it just looks nice and is pushed along by the goodwill of people who want it to do well.
‘Celebrity Brain Crash’ is a ridiculous waste of talent geared to showcase what an expensive celebrity Rolodex an Amazon budget can afford. ‘Conversation Street’, as well as the audience asides, have their merits but it’s an underwhelming and far less natural engagement than its predecessor show. No one is naive enough to think Top Gear was any less scripted, but it certainly didn’t look as contrived and forced.
The presenters, too, have become parodies of themselves in a bid to cash in on magic that came spontaneously and inexplicably. Clarkson, Hammond and May are not actors. Compare The Grand Tour with Top Gear at its prime, and it’s passable on good intentions alone because it’s an unexpected third act. Had the trio embarked on such a blatant and distilled knock-off and walked away from the BBC in a less entertaining disgrace and they’d have gotten slated.
James May seems sincerely uncomfortable with the show’s out-of-the-dank-studio focus. Hammond’s sartorial emulation of a country squire, pearly whites and dyed black hair are less self-deprecating and more emblematic of the general theme of old ideas trying to stay fresh. Only Clarkson seems to be at home; perhaps relishing having new surroundings at all.
The problem here is that the mystery of Top Gear has evaporated. Part of the magical charm of Clarkson, Hammond and May was that no one knew how close they were. By resigning to be with a disgraced comrade, the audience got exposed to either a gratuitously mercantile vein or genuine affection that runs counter to the on-screen tension that was so funny.
It’s unclear as to whether May and Hammond even know why they sided with Clarkson. In any event, they can no longer pull off the deception, and in places, there’s an acidic complicity that is a telling sign all is not too well. That Amazon advertised the show as a rip-roaring world tour of “friends” begs the question as to whether The Grand Tour can be business as usual or if it’s the theatrical debut of three actors.
For all the bombast that Clarkson and the others have at times, it never comes across much in the studio segments or the challenges because everything is so tediously scripted. Undoubtedly the weakest episode was the second with the wearisome Groundhog Day military sequences. The humour was off-kilter, and the Queen vignette seemed unusually uncouth. The forced naturality in the face of literally thousands of takes is the summation of what is wrong at the heart of the show.
Pacing and vision are, fundamentally, the issue. The Grand Tour isn’t the show that most had in mind. The beginning of the series was a celebration, a tongue-in-cheek look at its birth, but it drifted into a formula very quickly. The tent based touring was a pointless enterprise when most expected and wanted the trio travelling to scenic spectacles and doing challenges as full-hour events.
There are, despite itself, moments of greatness: As with Top Gear, the best Grand Tour episodes have been the ones where the hosts are themselves. The high point of the series was no doubt ‘Berks to the Future’. Combined it gave Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May the interplay that audiences relish as they took part in a car auction for an absurd creation, tried to harvest electricity and prepare for a zombie apocalypse. The Grand Tour at its best, with just the right amount of the familiar in there, too.
It also might be telling, too, that a great deal of fun comes from the mention of the unmentionable show over on the BBC. It’s impossible not to giggle when Hammond, who can turn straight-faced very quickly, joked about moving slowly and respectfully past the Cenotaph in London (an allusion to Matt LeBlanc’s debacle at doing doughnuts when filming Top Gear). Or, when reading into the ‘Conversation Street’ segment, Clarkson mused:
“I’m trying to think of a metaphor, for someone who’s tried their hardest with something, and it hasn’t worked…. nope, nothing’s coming to mind.”
Light-smugness, but funny given the elephant in the room is someone’s legal team (BBC or otherwise) waiting to pounce on them.
Will the show learn from its mistakes? Amazon has paid a reported $160m (£130m) for three series of the show, so a second series is coming. From bombastic openings and misadventures, there is nothing to say that the dreary absence of spontaneity can’t be fixed.
Top Gear became an extraordinary international success because of the easy camaraderie between the three stars, absurd challenges and its witty, off-the-cuff manner. The cars had little to do with it. The trio joked in one episode that the Top Gear Police Department was ‘ambitiose sed ineptum’ (ambitious, but inept). That should be the rallying call for The Grand Tour.
Clarkson, Hammond, May and Wilman have an audience which is desperate to see them cut loose. And it could be great, providing the series becomes more than a polished facsimile to better days.