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.

TOP GEAR Through the Rear View Mirror

top tear

It’s been a long wait since Jeremy Clarkson was let go from the BBC, cutting short season 22 of TOP GEAR, and James May and Richard Hammond decided to leave rather than appear on TOP GEAR without him. Last week, the world finally got its first look at the new TOP GEAR team with the premiere episode of season 23. The program aired Monday (May 30) on BBC America and Saturday (June 4) on BBC Canada.

Many fans have already made up their minds not to watch the revamped series. They prefer the boorish old man with bad manners who had no one to blame but himself for getting sacked. So the BBC have already started the revised series with a challenge attracting an audience. But if these people had watched the BBC make an honest attempt to breathe new life into what was once the world’s best program about the automobile, they might have changed their minds. To do it, the BBC brought in a seasoned radio show host with a penchant for fast cars and a renowned American TV star who admits to being a “petrol head” himself, and did themselves proud proving their metal in episode one.

Now, it wasn’t a perfect first run. Chris Evans, the radio show host, seemed to constantly yell when before the studio audience in the new, echo-prone studio. Was he afraid he couldn’t be heard so far away from the microphone he’s used to having right in front of him? Or was he just excited to be there? And there seemed to be something or someone missing when it was just he and Matt LeBlanc, the TV actor, together in the studio or out on a test run or adventure. Then there was the awkward interview during the segment that was once the “celebrity driving the reasonably priced automobile” segment. It’s now been turned into a rally car competition over a revamped slalom course outside the studio. Details are sketchy whether it will always feature two celebrities at the same time, but in this case, it was British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and American actor Jesse Eisenberg. The interview took too long and the introductions were awkwardly scripted on teleprompter.

But as a long-time fan, I have to say, TOP GEAR still had its automobile mojo in high gear. What wasn’t missing and what went well was the focus on cars.

The driving team took on the American-made Dodge Viper and Chevrolet Corvette Z06 and the British-made Ariel Nomad. Chris Evans and German auto racer matched the Viper against the ‘Vette in one-on-one combat at an American airfield, the Viper winning. And Matt LaBlanc tested the Nomad off-roader in the Moroccan desert, clearly having the ride of a lifetime. The Stig put the Viper and the Nomad to the test on the TOP GEAR test track, the Viper rating among the top against fast cars from past seasons.

TOP GEAR also continued its adventures-on-the-road series, Chris and Matt taking old three-wheeled Reliants on a 250 mile trek to Blackpool, England, where Matt’s Stars and Stripes-painted convertible barely survived the trek across the finish line in the rain. Then it was time for a series of competitions, pitting an august Range Rover against a vintage Willys Jeep: Brit ingenuity versus Yank dependability. And they played it all off with plenty of the cheeky TOP GEAR fun and games, silliness, and smarminess. That part of TOP GEAR hadn’t changed, although it didn’t match the give and take of Clarkson, May, and Hammond.

At the end of the show, Matt LeBlanc started to say, “And with that bombshell,” Clarkson’s usual way to end the show, but Evans stopped him short. You see, as much of the old TOP GEAR format as the new version had tried to retain, this clearly wasn’t going to be the same old show.

TOP GEAR is now an hour and a half, and in some places they’ve added a half hour “under the hood” program, called EXTRA GEAR, where they’ve separated out the “news” and amplified parts of the regular TOP GEAR program. It is hosted by two new presenters, Rory Reid and Chris Harris. The studio audience for this show is smaller, and the videography quality doesn’t look as good. And I noticed a sense of tension between the two hosts. Honestly, I didn’t see the purpose of this separate show except that as the TOP GEAR producers started organizing a new show they began bringing on new presenters, and maybe it hadn’t all gelled by the time they needed to air the first episodes.

Audience reaction is understandably lukewarm. From the beginning of the separation from Clarkson, May, and Hammond, they have wanted their trio or nothing. And clearly the new team needs some work. But the quality workmanship is there. It will take some time to work out the quirks. A BBC series like this is typically 6 episodes — will that be enough time to establish the presenters with viewers to rebuild the series’ audience? Will the changes and upgrades be enough to impress those who stuck around and bring back any of the skeptics? Matt LaBlanc seems like a natural in the show; Chris Evans seems a bit edgy, nervous, pushy. Will the team survive? The original series’ trio start up their own new automobile program on Amazon Prime this fall. The BBC doesn’t have much time to win over this audience.

You can watch TOP GEAR and EXTRA GEAR at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT Mondays on BBC America.

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


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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intruders bbc america

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fleming the man who would be bond

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