TOP GEAR: My “Hold onto Your Driving Goggles!” Matt LeBlanc Moment

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Hold onto your driving goggles, an American is joining the Brits as a “presenter” on the revamp of the iconic BBC show about automobiles, TOP GEAR. BBC announced just today that Matt LeBlanc (FRIENDS, EPISODES) would now join Chris Evans and The Stig as a regular. New episodes begin airing in Britain in May. The show also airs on BBC America, although a date hasn’t been announced yet — they typically air programs a short time later.

This is the first time an American has been a presenter in the 39 years of the show, according to the BBC news release. LeBlanc has been presenting (that’s Brit for “hosting”) on its recent spate of repackaged episodes of racing segments from past shows, which had earlier featured presenters Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond.

You may recall that in March 2015, all hell broke loose in the TOP GEAR universe when Clarkson smacked a producer after a late night of post-production carousing and the BBC was forced to fire Clarkson. In a show of loyalty, May and Hammond refused to go on with the show without Clarkson, even though they often remarked his behavior was boorish and nettlesome. And so the BBC found themselves in the thorny position of trying to keep a very popular and profitable program afloat without its three very cheeky but admired presenters. Fans of the show said they would never watch TOP GEAR again without them. Clarkson, May, and Hammond are currently working on an automobile show of their own for Amazon Prime, to premiere in autumn 2016, which would compete with TOP GEAR.

Interestingly, however, my Twitter feed this morning lit up with very good vibes about LeBlanc as the new presenter. He had appeared twice on TOP GEAR as a guest interview and to drive the “reasonably priced car” around the TOP GEAR track, breaking the record as the fastest paced celebrity. While fan reaction to main presenter Chris Evans was at first tepid, this news seems to be brightening response to the upcoming season, which is a real surprise to me.

As a fan of past seasons, I have been dubious about the reboot of the series. (Not to be confused with “series” in Brit, which means season.) Who could replace the camaraderie of Clarkson, May, and Hammond and their spirit of adventure, their knowledge of cars and their joy of driving back roads or motorways or out in the middle of nowhere, and their apparent sheer competence at fixing a broken automobile? Who could go on and on and on about the tiniest details of cars and takes on some of the most amazing driving trips around the world, all with sound observations about handling, build, and speed and then, the world around them? Are Evans and LeBlanc up to that?

Matt LeBlanc describes himself as a car enthusiast. Evans describes him as a “lifelong fellow petrolhead.” OK, so he loves cars. But is he knowledgeable? Does he spend time tinkering and rebuilding and collecting them as Clarkson, May, and Hammond have done? And when Evans and LeBlanc go on worldwide driving adventures as the article implies they will, can LeBlanc fix a car that breaks down in the middle of nowhere? Can he drift? He’s very stoic – can he show us the joy of driving a Lamborghini or a Bugatti, or look down his nose at a three-wheeler?

Maybe I’m just having trouble with the idea of “Joey Tribbiani” muscling cars through their paces on some of the fastest tracks in Europe or nursing an ailing four-wheeler in the jungles of Thailand.

Jeremy Clarkson once recently commented that he thought it might be an interesting competition between his new series on Amazon Prime and the reboot of TOP GEAR. That trio will have an interesting obstacle to overcome getting old fans to change over to a pay-per-view service to see their new program. And it may be that Matt LeBlanc is just what TOP GEAR needs to perk up interest – in Britain and North America – before the real duel between automobile programs begins. Well played, BBC.

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