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.