TOP GEAR Versus GRAND TOUR: I’m Conflicted

top gear

I feel so conflicted. For over a year I had accepted the idea that Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond were gone from TOP GEAR forever and I would have to get used to a new set of unseasoned presenters. The new group were rough on the corners, but BBC seemed to be working things out.

I watched the first new season (they call it a series in Britain) and it was a flop, so BBC retooled it, retaining three  of the presenters and jettisoning Chris Evans. This season there are just three regular presenters: Matt LeBlanc, Chris Harris, and Rory Reid, with the occasional reappearance of race car driver Sabine Schmitz. They have also retooled the retool of the reasonably priced car time trial to the reasonably fast rally time trial back to the reasonably fast celebrity time trial, also choosing now to expand the role of the celebrity in discussing cars.

It was just beginning to look like this might work after all. And then my wife accidentally got an Amazon Prime membership and I watched GRAND TOUR.

Now, TOP GEAR is definitely better than it was with loud and pushy Chris Evans. They do talk about cars and go on wild adventures, as did their predecessors. There’s no apparent lead presenter as when Jeremy Clarkson ran the show, but Matt LeBlanc often seems like the head guy, although he sometimes comes of as oafish and naive in the world in a way a Brit wouldn’t. There is plenty of conflict between the presents, as there was with the original three, but it often comes off as forced or, sometimes, real – in the sense that they don’t get along, unlike Clarkson, May, and Hammond, who while they often had spats still highly bonded. LeBlanc, Harris, and Reid don’t seem to bond. And LeBlanc and Harris get most of the air time and cool cars to drive, while Reid seems an after thought on the show. The original presenters mostly shared the air time. They were a team.

Never was this more apparent when I watched GRAND TOUR. The old team still had the magic. I still think Clarkson can be a boorish oaf, which is what got him into trouble in the first place. But he knows how to make car television fun and interesting. He was the genius behind TOP GEAR, and he has continued it into GRAND TOUR. This show manages to bring in top car brands and present them in a thoughtful, engaging way. They go on wild adventures that make you laugh and laugh and laugh again. The presenters are as much a reason to watch as the cars, as they get on each other’s case, teasing and torturing each other just for the fun of it. And they go to some of the most amazing places. All with that cheeky, understated British humor. Contrast that with TOP GEAR, where they get some big car brands, go to some interesting places, and just two of the presenters go after each other, in an awkward way.

I’ll give you that the new team of presenters have hardly had time to bond. I like LeBlanc. He’s a smooth talker, a likable guy, has a fun sense of humor, and he knows how to have fun with a car. Harris seems to know as much about cars as anyone, and he’s fun to watch put a car through its paces. Reid is likable, too, if they would just give him a chance to do something. Their adventures are interesting, but they lack sophistication. And they don’t spend enough time on them nor are they as expansive or complex as the originals. The trouble is, there is no real sense of team there.

So, I’m conflicted. The problem is, I get BBC America on cable so it doesn’t cost me anything extra to watch TOP GEAR. I have to pay extra for Amazon Prime to watch GRAND TOUR. I really want to like TOP GEAR, but dang, I do prefer watching Clarkson, May, and Hammond present the magic of the automobile and driving them in the most amazing places in the world. Part of the meaning behind their title is that rather than being stuck in a British shire to present the show, GRAND TOUR hosts the show in a different place in the world each week. And while TOP GEAR does a measly seven episodes a season, GRAND TOUR does a dozen! Oh, my. Is there really a choice?

If you love cars. If you love watching car shows. If you love watching cars being presented in a way you can understand and seeing them driven as they are meant to be driven and showcased in exotic locations. Well, the gold standard has to be GRAND TOUR, boorish oaf lead presenter or not. I have to admit, all those naysayers who refused to watch the retooled TOP GEAR were right to stick by the old gents.

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