It’s good to be back. The painful memories of Top Gear’s reincarnation sans Clarkson, Hammond & May are in the distance of my rear-view mirror as I speed along on the ride that The Grand Tour takes me on; foot to the floor, showing off its speed and power whilst having me salivating over cars once again.
It’s important to note I’m not a car fanatic, in fact I’m completely opposite to what’s considered a ‘grease monkey’ in this day of age, but something about the moaning of three aged men arguing about the vehicle they’ve chosen to back in this particular segment makes me feel like an expert. As if this is a world I have been invited into by these three pillars of motoring journalism, each one of them at some point voicing my opinions on modern day driving whilst bathing in the nostalgia of yesteryear.
Let’s get one thing straight, The Grand Tour isn’t Top Gear 2.0, but it does its best to hold onto many signature moments from the aforementioned franchise. For example, the way the trio enter the tent to rapturous applause echoes the introductions they used to receive by Top Gear audiences. The montages have the same slick, creative production value which has my mouth widening at each incomprehensible fact the presenters read off about the vehicle being showcased.
The most important thing that has not changed, however, is the chemistry between the presenters. It’s as if they’d never left Top Gear and had carried on their arguments off air. Once Amazon got the cameras rolling again they already had TV gold on their hands with Clarkson, Hammond and May’s bickering. Best of all, the sentiment of “it’s as if they’ve never been away” is so inviting to viewers old and new that it means whoever watches the show jumps into the car with the presenters and immediately feels like they’re part of a family on a journey rather than being dragged along in the trailer behind.
If ever Amazon wanted to make a statement regarding how much they believe in this new project they’re undertaking it’s the opening sequence of the series. It’s a showcase of the spending power Amazon is willing to invest into this new venture alongside paying homage to the true draw of the show, that of the presenters. The moment when Clarkson, Hammond and May meet each other’s gaze and chuckle at the thought of “how is this happening?!” is a moment shared by presenter and viewer alike as they’re flanked by literally hundreds of vehicles of all shapes, sizes and ages blowing up dust in Dry Rabbit Lake. What proceeds to happen is a rock n roll style introduction of each presenter on stage before entering the new ‘tent’ setup which will be placed in different countries across the globe throughout the series. Whilst it may feel an unnecessarily long introduction, it’s drowning in nostalgia of how the presenters got to this point and where we’re going from here on in. It also highlights the epic proportions this show is going to rather than the bog standard/budget saving episodes of Top Gear you sometimes got.
Whilst to this point I’ve praised the return of these motoring icons, the show is not perfectly executed. The title and the way the show was portrayed in trailers leading up to its release made me feel like, with every episode being set in a different country, Clarkson, Hammond & May would embark upon a new hilarious journeys similar to the Top Gear specials like Vietnam, Bolivia & India to name a few, each week. This is not the case and is somewhat disappointing as the show goes into a typical segment commonly found in your average Top Gear episode. Nevertheless, it’s nice to have the routine back as Clarkson, Hammond & May try to outdo each other in their selected supercars.
Episode one, entitled ‘The Holy Trinity’ is designed to be an introduction to a new series whilst having all the material that veterans of Top Gear will recognise to not feel disorientated. It works well and leaves the viewer wanting more. Why-oh-why can’t Amazon release all the content at once like Netflix!? There’s nothing better than a lazy Sunday sat binge-watching Top Gear… why can’t this be the same for The Grand Tour rather than waiting every Friday for a new episode?
‘Operation Desert Stumble’ (episode 2) is like a sophomore album for a new band, always difficult to write and sometimes never living up to the heights of the first record, which this episode perfectly represents. The Edge of Tomorrow style repetition of the special forces training regime in Johannesburg the trio undertake is exciting to watch, but each time they have to start again due to one of them “dying” is more frustrating than funny. By the end you’re just glad the segment has finally finished. Also, James May has to endure something totally uncharacteristic for him to undertake which is always amusing.
‘Opera, Art and Donuts’ (episode 3) is the best episode in the series so far and may even be considered one of the best programmes the trio have ever put together. First off, the set is based in Whitby, England where the reception Clarkson, Hammond and May receive when they enter the tent is simply deafening. You really get the sense that the audience and the presenters are truly delighted to be back home. Furthermore, the main feature of the traditional Italian grand tour they undertake is simply a perfect balance of a serious showcase of the beautiful Aston Martin DB11, refined Rolls Royce Dawn and bombastic Dodge Challenger Hellcat and the hilarious shenanigans the trio get up to on their typical journeys they embark upon.
‘Enviro-mental’ (episode 4) has the gang back in Whitby once more with the trio attempting to make cars with sustainable materials. This is your standard episode with a showcase on a matchup between a Porsche GT3 RS and BMW M4 GTS thrown into the mix.
Throughout these first four of the 12-episode series the viewer is introduced to some familiar Top Gear features rebranded as Conversation Street & Celebrity Braincrash to break up from the main arc of each episode. Conversation Street is a perfect replacement of the “News” segment found in Top Gear where the presenters share opinions on the latest automobile headlines which always brings out a laugh. In particular, Hammond’s distaste of Nissan Jukes went down in my household very well with my fiancée celebrating her opinion being voiced on the “bug eyed” monstrosities roaming our roads.
However, Celebrity Braincrash is the anchor that holds back the show overall. The celebrity guests (spoiler alert, if it can be spoilt any further) being killed off in different ways before they can actually participate in the show was amusing in the first episode, but for the joke to continue in every episode to date now feels awkward and stale. When a celebrity went round a track in Top Gear it was an intriguing part of the previous show setup and all Celebrity Braincrash does is ask “what if?” which is both frustrating and like we’ve been conned into viewing a time consuming tactic section of the show.
Also, the brash, extremely opinionated American replacement of The Stig is irritating. The new track the cars undertake is far more challenging than it ever has been and looks like a drivers dream to go around in at top speed. Unfortunately, we have ‘The American’ taking us on the ride each week claiming anything that isn’t American is inferior. Amazon have proven they have the budget in the show introduction – go get a driver who all viewers can respect and, most importantly, tolerate. He is the only thing that lets down the segment and a switch would solve all its problems.
However, when the show clicks, it does so impeccably. The chemistry of the presenters has never been better and seems to age brilliantly like a fine wine. The car showcases are still excellently produced and Conversation Street still gives the trio the opportunity to voice their opinions on all things current in the motor industry often drawing laughter from everyone. Fine tuning of features such as Celebrity Braincrash and the American racing driver are all that’s needed to make this a truly stellar show that is a welcome return for all whom were longing to fill the void that Clarkson, Hammond & May Top Gear left. Best of all, it’s early days for the new show which has already planned out a 36 episode run over 3 years. More importantly, it feels like the best is yet to come.