I’ll admit this right up front: I haven’t watched Top Gear in a decade. Not more than two or three minutes’ worth at a time, anyway. As far as I could ever tell, the whole idea behind the show was to reach out to people who didn’t care about cars very much and communicate with them in a language they could understand. It’s not that I disliked the Holy Trinity of Clarkson, Hammond, and May; to the contrary, I read their columns and reviews with attention and interest. But the TV show just seemed like an extended outtake from Fawlty Towers. And don’t get me started on the ridiculous idea of “The Stig,” which seemed solely designed to keep the spotlight on the “presenters.”
Yet all of the above didn’t stop me from watching The Grand Tour. I was admittedly fascinated by the challenge facing Jeremy and the Clarksonaires: Could they build a compelling television show without encroaching on the BBC’s intellectual property or descending further into slapstick? Could they come up with a way to keep all those Amazon-customer eyeballs pointed at the screen while at the same time producing some content that wouldn’t make the cognoscenti turn up its collective nose? In short—could they make a truly great show about cars?
The answer to that question seems to be: not yet. The first episode seemed to burn up the accumulated goodwill of the audience the way a Veyron consumes fuel at full throttle. The second was kind of an odd detour into reality-show comedy. The third is, frankly, ponderous to watch. I’m going to watch the fourth one, I swear. I just need to work up the willingness to devote an hour of my life to it, and so far I haven’t managed to do that. If the suspiciously exact numbers on “illegal viewing” are any guide, then it would appear that I’m not the only person who feels this way.
Which is a shame, because The Grand Tour has an excellent chance to further the cause of automotive enthusiasm around the world. We could use the help, honestly. You’ve heard all the reasons why young people aren’t interested in cars. Many of those reasons are both plausible and reasonable. Yet I can’t help but think that just a couple of pop-culture phenomena along the lines of “Miami Vice” or “The Rockford Files” or even “Knight Rider” might go a long way towards reversing the trend. But until people start getting interested in shows that that aren’t set in imaginary medieval lands or robotic amusement parks—or Brooklyn—The Grand Tour is all we’ve got. So it needs to work.
I’ll tell you the problem that I, as a novice viewer not intimately acquainted with the Top Gear mythology, had with the show: it’s 95 percent fake. With the exception of the laptimes set by the rent-a-pro driver in the first episode, and possibly Mike Skinner’s driving at the “Eboladrome,” every single part of the show is obviously, painfully scripted. Even those segments, which should be relatively straightforward, aren’t terribly convincing, just because everything around them creaks and clanks with the tortured efforts to preserve the “character” of each presenter.
The “grand tour” section of the third episode was one long argument against this method. None of the sight gags were funny, while the faux-conflict between Clarkson, Hammond, and May was both flat and unconvincing. By the time Hammond is supposedly doing donuts behind a production of Carmen, it’s obvious that not even the stars of the show want to continue the charade.
Let me tell you how I’d fix it. First step: trade the script for an outline, and dump the non-surprises. Why not let the stars of the show express themselves in real time, even if it’s not always a neat fit for a pre-arranged plotline?
Example: The trope of each writer “rooting” for a particular car. It’s tired, it’s inauthentic, and so far in this season it’s been less than convincing. What if all three of them really all like one of the cars they are “testing” more than the others? Would that be so terrible? I’d rather see Clarkson et al develop some genuine impressions of the vehicles during the episode.
Next example: Both of the three-way comparisons so far have featured the “surprise” arrival of a truck as two non-actors attempt to feign astonishment. Is this necessary? Shouldn’t having unfettered access to the best cars in the world, an effectively unlimited budget, and standard-setting production values be enough to make this show compelling? Why does there have to be some sort of community-theater “acting” to it? “Oh no, Hammond is being loud in the tunnel again!” Let it go. Nobody’s buying it, and you shouldn’t be selling it. Then I’d get a real track and a well-known young driver to do the laptimes. It doesn’t have to be Laguna Seca or Spa. It could be Carolina Motorsports Park. But it should be a real track that people can really visit. Explain why the cars are fast or slow, what makes them good or bad. That can be explained by the driver or it can be explained by Clarkson. But you can’t tell me that it couldn’t be presented in an interesting and attention-grabbing fashion.
Last but not least, I’d strip off most of the slow-motion-and-explosions stuff. Right now this show is like a ’77 Cordoba, festooned with all sorts of plastic chrome and gimmickry. It should be like a 1970 Chevelle SS: sleek, mean, compelling. Let the stars talk, let them interact, let them express their real selves. That’s what you’re paying them for. And that’s why people watch the show in the first place: because when it’s authentic, or even close to authentic, the former Top Gear triumverate is simply the most interesting set of “car guys” on television today. Nothing on YouTube or the various cable channels truly comes close.
I worry that everybody involved is simply too old and set in their ways to return to the high-energy, engaging style that made their early shows so popular, or that that they simply don’t have the creative vision to do something new and better. But then I think about Miles Davis, who in the course of an otherwise unpleasant interaction with Nancy Reagan is reported to have said, “Lady, I’ve changed music three or four times.” It’s not too late for Clarkson, Hammond, and May to change mass-market car enthusiasm a second time. Let’s hope they can pull it off; that would be grand, indeed.