The Grand Tour is what happens when somebody buys too much into their own false hype.
What made Top Gear essential viewing? Now that I’ve (hopefully) sufficiently driven off those who were planning to yell the Stewart Lee bit at me rather than debate critically about that show, let me rephrase the question slightly: what made Top Gear interesting viewing that appealed to so many people the world over? One could argue that an enjoyment of Top Gear is heavily predicated on being White, male, and either a teenager or having the mindset and attitude of a teenager, and that the show is simply something you grow out of, like wearing cargo shorts or listening to any Dizzee Rascal music produced after the year 2007. Except that that’s not quite true. I “grew out of” Top Gear about 3 years back, yet every now and then I’ll catch a glimpse of a re-run on Dave and remember why I loved the show so much, so it’s not an issue of age.
There’s a common misconception that Top Gear worked solely off the backs of hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May (and unseen fourth ranger in Executive Producer Andy Wilman) and their various interplay – you weren’t watching Top Gear for the cars, you were watching it to watch these 3 imbeciles muck around doing whatever and getting on each other’s nerves. But that’s not actually it. No, the real reason that Top Gear worked was the show’s interplay and conflict between its various natures as a car review show, as escapist television, and its featuring 3 complete berks waddling about puncturing the artifice at every turn.
Top Gear is a car show, cars are built into the very fabric of its DNA, but it is not a Car Show. It can’t be a Car Show because very few people seriously want to sit down and hear about the minutia of everyday cars. So, instead, Top Gear is an Escapist Car Show. The only time you’ll see a Fiat Punto is when it is being deservedly derided as a piece of garbage in comparison to whatever luxury sports car is being drifted sideways at high speeds in a billowing cloud of smoke at that moment. The show is instead all about the sorts of cars you see in the movies; the big, glamorous, powerful, expensive dream machines that you personally will never own or drive or even glimpse on your daily commute, but can vicariously appreciate and experience the power of from the comfort of your own home. Facts and figures are always in relation to power and speed rather than miles per gallon or emissions rates, price tags nearly always start in the low 6 figures, and every one of these beasts are filmed with pornographic adoration, their physical attributes treated with the kind of reverence usually reserved for supermodels. No wonder the Forza Motorsport series eventually teamed up with the show; its visual language has more in common with videogames than Factual Programming.
Yet, Top Gear as purely Escapist Television would be kind of insufferable or, at the very least, utterly generic and uninspiring. It’d be the equivalent of your super-rich university friend regaling you with a slideshow of just how awesome their super-expensive globetrotting gap year was, only serving to make you more miserable and jealous and wanting to stamp their inadvertently smug face in. That’s where Clarkson, Hammond, and May came in. The reason why they are regularly held up as the x-factor in why Top Gear worked is because, in a way, they kind of were. They really did bring something to the table that the show otherwise would have lacked, and that something was normalcy.
Think about it. The appeal of Top Gear didn’t just come from seeing super-expensive and super-gorgeous cars being filmed and treated like a particularly racy Maxim cover shoot, it came from that veneer being constantly punctured by the antics of its trio of hosts. We, the viewers, weren’t just vicariously experiencing the sensation of driving a brand-new Ferrari around a deserted airfield in the South of England, we were experiencing it via three normal blokes. They were being paid obscene amounts of money to live out our dreams and visibly had the time of their lives doing so, but they also punctured the façade of television often enough that we were allowed to see ourselves in the fantasy that the show sold us even more than we would otherwise.
Think of how many times the show allowed the trio to look like the idiots they are – and I don’t mean in the racist, sexist, nationalistic way that they also are. I mean in how they let metaphors get away from them, were crass in the way you don’t get from professional television presenters, their tangible gleeful excitement, or how every big challenge or travel piece would juxtapose the grandiosity of their surroundings or task with extended sequences of them pissing about or winding each other up. It all breaks that veneer of professional, glossy, aspirational television that is intended to be escapist but can instead come off as impenetrable. Very few of us will attempt to build a kit car or drive across Europe trying to find the best road in the world in the most glamourous of super cars, but everybody knows that things would be as childish and bicker-filled and silly as they were depicted on Top Gear if they were given the chance to do so with their best friends (although hopefully less racist, sexist, etc.).
Top Gear was near-essential – or, at the very least, interesting – television because of the balance between those three facets and how they came together to create something greater than the sum of their parts would suggest. When Top Gear began to fall apart, and it did inarguably start to fall apart as its run dragged on, was when it became, for all intents and purposes, a sitcom. As time went on, the show became so refined, so formula-set, and started buying so much into its own hype, that any normalcy was sucked out of the show and, with it, the unique appeal it once had. Top Gear didn’t become lazy, that’s a complete misconception, but it arguably became something worse: it became too driven. The show was always ridiculous and scripted even back in its heyday – Series 9 tried to make a Space Shuttle with a Reliant Robin, for example – but it eventually became so intent on topping itself, and consequently on playing to the crowd and hitting the beats required of it, that that unique feel and spontaneity disappeared into the ether.
Clarkson, Hammond, and May did turn into cartoon caricatures of themselves, playing up to the narrow personas they were boiled down to rather than acting like the normal human beings that their whole appeal rested upon. The show did drift away from living on that push-pull dichotomy between being a Car Show and a Mucking About Show, into far more of a Mucking About Show that occasionally featured some cars. The trio became the show rather than the hosts of the show, they can’t pierce the veneer of the show when they themselves are the whole show. The “could be worse”s and “meanwhile”s and other such became just as predictable and tangibly-controlled as the main content. It’s like how Pop Punk bands can’t make sincere records once they’ve been snapped up by a major label, broken through into the big time, and have been going on for more than a decade.
You may be wondering why I have yet to refer to The Grand Tour by itself as its own entity, or even at all in the eight paragraphs prior to this, and that’s because the show is really insistent on drawing parallels to or reminding you of Top Gear. Part of this is to be expected, of course, and even actively encouraged – when you hire Clarkson, Hammond, and May (and Wilman) to create and host a car show, you are effectively telling them to make Top Gear with the Serial Numbers Filed Off. It’s even somewhat excusable in the pilot, where shots against their old show and their old employer – both in cast-off asides, extended riffs on who has technically never been fired, or entire segments designed to mock parts of their old show – would be noticeable by their absence. The first time a celebrity dies whilst attempting to make it to the tent for “Celebrity Brain Crash,” it’s quite funny the once, a fun shot at the least-enjoyable segment of old Top Gear. But the key word there is “once.” The once. The joke is repeated twice more in the same episode, and then in every episode since then.
What could have been a nice one-off joke is instead a recurring segment in the structure of the show. It’s rehearsed, refined, comes with its own catchphrase that the audience can chuckle at in recognition. The Grand Tour, for better and worse but mostly worse, is like Top Gear never stopped. It’s the result of everybody involved buying too much into their own false hype – that Top Gear was what it was purely as a result of those three idiots and that everything else comes second to watching them dicking about – and the show, at the moment, is mostly falling into the exact same potholes that the original show eventually succumbed to. There’s a false belief throughout much of the first three episodes that cars come second to whatever nonsense that main trio feels like doing, which has never been the appeal of Top Gear, not least because their amateur sitcom routines are just incredibly unfunny in the first place.
For example, episode 2’s main feature set Clarkson, Hammond, and May the task of running a training course for the world’s special forces teams – inserting via a helicopter, breaching and clearing a terrorist compound, retaking a hijacked commercial airliner and rescuing the VIP from it, then escaping via car to the safety of the British Embassy – with the caveat that they would have to do the entire course again every time one of them ‘died.’ Unsurprisingly, there is not one genuine moment throughout this entire segment, with every last second blatantly scripted and refined to the absolute hilt, with even Clarkson’s open lampshade hanging of “this is a car show, we need car content” to May when he’s telling him to steal a car feeling insincere and forced. You’re not watching escapist television with relatable hosts puncturing that expensive artifice at every turn. You’re instead just watching three rich White Men recreate Edge of Tomorrow with 100% less funny jokes than the original film and 100% more anal rape references because… your guess is as good as mine.
And that’s what keeps sinking The Grand Tour. That relatable factor has mostly gone, the busting of the professional veneer is now the professional veneer. Clarkson, Hammond, and May are now A Brand, and that means that there’s not a damn genuine thing in any part of this show, despite that being why we fell in love with them in the first place. Their new Amazon home and freedom from the tether of Top Gear hasn’t challenged them to rediscover what they once lost or course-correct their worst instincts. It’s instead done what every blank cheque major label contract does and allowed them the freedom to indulge themselves in needlessly spending extravagant amounts of money on empty spectacle that obscures and replaces their initial appeal almost totally. It’s allowed them to further play up their already flanderised characters, it’s allowed them to spend the opening five minutes of every episode performing abysmal stand-up comedy routines about how stupid the country they’re hosting from this week is, it’s allowed them to create a ghastly nonsensical replacement test track they’ve dubbed “The Eboladrome” with a specialist racing driver called “The American” who calls everything a Communist because stereotypes.
But every now and then, The Grand Tour taps into that old Top Gear magic that gives me enough hope to stick with the show, just in case it eventually realises that that is what it should really be, rather than 5 minute segments devoted to destroying Jeremy Clarkson’s house (where even that supposedly real segment has its authenticity questioned through a number of awful and obviously scripted gags). During both of the car tests featured so far in the season, of the BMW M2 and the Aston Martin Vulcan, I was immediately reminded of and struck by just how phenomenally those involved are able to present and depict cars. The way they are shot, the way each segment is edited, making them look like powerful, beautiful forces of nature that have sprung forth from the brain of an excitable awe-struck child, whilst also willing to let the air out of such a depiction when it’s called for – such as in Clarkson’s initial misfortunes with getting into, out of, and starting the Vulcan.
More than that, though, there’s the main segment of that first episode, where our three hosts finally get the chance to put “the Holy Trinity” of the McLaren P1, the Ferrari LaFerrari, and the Porsche 918 into direct competition with each other, in both subjective drive feel and an actual timed lap. Throughout, although there are obviously scripted segments that everyone falls back on, that focus on cars and the driving thereof curbs all of their worst instincts and seems to reawaken the naturalistic chemistry and interplay that they had lost in recent years. Every zing isn’t pointed out in giant neon signs and belaboured on whilst they wait for the laugh, the occasional artifice-shattering feels sincere rather than a part of the artifice itself – Clarkson’s wagering of the demolition of his house if the McLaren doesn’t win is particularly reminiscent… at least, of course, until it was actually followed through upon two episodes later – and, for the first time in a long while, they act and feel like real human beings again instead of Clarkson, Hammond, and May.
That’s the kind of show that The Grand Tour should be and clearly could be. I just wish that I didn’t have to wade through a lot of awful stand-up and amateur sub-CBS sitcom shenanigans to get to it.
Callie Petch played it left hand but made it too far.