This morning I watched that 2010 60 Minutes story featuring my favorite show in the world: Top Gear. As “Jessica” played and images of the Dunsfold studio, where the show was filmed, scrolled by, I found myself missing it desperately. But I’m not supposed to miss Top Gear. After years of waiting, The Grand Tour is here, and it’s supposed to assuage my sadness. The only problem is that it doesn’t, because it’s not as good.
The Grand Tour debuted on Amazon Prime almost a month ago to vast and clanging internet fanfare. The wait was over. We’d suffered through an attempted BBC Top Gear revival, and now things could get back to normal. Hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May had stuck together in their BBC departure. Producer Andy Wilman, the brains behind the whole Top Gear revival, had come along, too. Amazon’s limitless coffers would fund the project even more impressively than the BBC had funded Top Gear.
Yet we’re now three episodes into The Grand Tour, with the fourth airing tomorrow night, and it’s not Top Gear reincarnated. It’s something less, and I’ve attempted to distill some reasons why. It would be easy to just look at the general differences between the two shows, but that’s not exactly fair. All reports indicate that The Grand Tour has been run through a very fine sieve of legal protection to avoid being sued for copyright infringement. No Stig or “Some say…”, no Star in a Reasonably Priced Car, no Cool Wall.
They’ve turned some of this deliberate ignoring into a lampoon. The News is now called Conversation Street, and features a different title card for each week, each with a hidden joke. In last week’s, Clarkson wore stiletto heels. SIARPC is now Celebrity Brain Crush, a supposed trivia game, though every celebrity thus far has been killed on the way to the segment, through some unfortunate accident. It’s a poignant joke. No, BBC, we’re not doing it anymore, and James May’s repeated, “Does that mean he’s not coming on, then?” is funny enough, but the humor is too staged to work as it should.
This obvious scripting of The Grand Tour is at the heart of all of its faults. Top Gear, as I’ve said before, has always been scripted. Almost everything we see is written ahead of time. But it once did a much better job of hiding that fact. We weren’t asked to suspend our disbelief at every turn. It wasn’t presented as fiction, and when it was, those segments were widely regarded as the weakest parts of the show. The trio’s Butch Cassidy charge at the end of their Argentina special comes to mind.
Now it’s everywhere. The greatest perpetrator so far is TGT‘s special forces training segment, in which they are “killed” multiple times, the final in humorous nod to Platoon, complete with Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” in the background.
But the staging isn’t just found in the big segments. Their Stig replacement racing driver, Mike Skinner, is such an overbaked, stereotypical American caricature that he might as well be Larry the Cable Guy. His groaner lines about any car without an American V8 being “communist” are unfunny at best and alienating at worst. Yes, we think all those cars are communist. That’s why we’ve been watching a European car show for decades.
Top Gear was a champion of subtlety, that timeless, British wink-and-nod humor so effective in a “factual” program. The Grand Tour has thrown so much of that away. In episode three, May and Hammond set about tearing down Clarkson’s house, and in it they find a Putinesque painting of Clarkson riding a horse shirtless. Top Gear wouldn’t have done this. On Top Gear, it would’ve been hinted at. Sure, Clarkson would have something like that in his house, they’d say. The Grand Tour just put it out there, and it’s not quite as funny, because you can’t pretend to believe it.
I think the root of all of this can be found in TGT‘s lack of limits. Yes, the lack of limits. When it was bound to the BBC, Top Gear was classified as a “factual program,” meaning that it would be nonfictional and educational in nature. Because of this they had to present some form of reality, and they had to be focused on cars.
This is not the case with TGT. That show can be about anything, and the trio have said that it will be broader in focus. This, apparently, included silly, scripted segments about special forces training and Clarkson enjoying art. The trio is undoubtedly hilarious, but they’re not actors. They’re much funnier as themselves.
Top Gear also had a much smaller budget, presumably, and a time constraint of one hour per episode. The Grand Tour has neither, and it shows. Celebrity Brain Crush, for example, would be much funnier if it was only mentioned. But with TGT‘s extra budget and screentime, they can afford to get and show footage of Simon Pegg actually falling into Whitby Harbor and dying. It stretches out the space between the jokes, which is always less funny, but more importantly, it stretches our ability to suspend our disbelief.
We used to have to wonder what was real and fake on Top Gear. We’d be so convinced that a result of one of their X vs Car races was staged, but then one of the three would show up in an interview and say that it wasn’t. We’d think their rugged adventures were coddled, but then May would fall off a horse and injure his back. But TGT forces us to take the whole thing is pure fiction, and this rather raises the bar. We’ve seen better, funnier, and more dramatic fiction.
This all might read a little scathing, but that’s not the intent. The Grand Tour is still funny and entertaining, and it’s every bit as beautifully shot as Top Gear. It’s also the best car-related show out there right now, and I won’t miss an episode. It just has some work to do before it can replace its predecessor.