When Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May left “Top Gear” I felt as if I would never be cheerful again. My favorite unapologetically British lads who loved cars, mischief, and being assholes were leaving TV and I was doubtful there would ever be anything quite like it again. It turns out, I was right.
The last season of “Top Gear” with its new hosts Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc was categorically awful. Even worse, it was boring. Somehow despite setting up the same type of over-the-top stunts and racing around in equally gorgeous fast cars, the show was lackluster at best. There was no chemistry. There was no heart. At no point did you watch it and think, “They have the best jobs in the whole world.”
So when Amazon’s more or less “Top Gear” remake “The Grand Tour” debuted with the world’s favorite British assholes, I was overjoyed. And in the opening scene of the first episode, where Clarkson leaves a bleak, sad London for the sunshine and open roads of the American West, driving the epitome of the American muscle car, it felt like brighter days were finally upon us.
It was easy to overlook that the whole reason Clarkson’s contract wasn’t renewed with the BBC was because he did actually punch a man over a steak, and not because the Beeb was being unreasonable. The grandness and the fanfare of the first episode solidified that the boys were back in town, and nothing would keep them down anymore. Gone were the limits of civility the BBC demanded, and the hindrance of already high–but limited–budgets. Amazon was ready and willing to pay for any and everything Clarkson, Hammond, and May could dream up.
The problem though, is that with those dreams realized, the core of what made their run on “Top Gear” brilliant became readily apparent. While you could never categorize “Top Gear” as operating on a shoestring budget, it sure as hell didn’t have the $250 million Amazon threw at the production. Unfortunately with that cash influx, it forced things to be bigger, and unnecessarily grand.
Some of the ways they spent the money were spectacular. The new sweeping vistas outside the touring tent each week gave the show a global feel that the original could never compete with. They hopped from South Africa, Finland, the Netherlands, and Germany and countless places in between and filmed it with a precision and beauty that would impress even the Planet Earth team. But with the grandness, you lost the Britishness that made “Top Gear” shine. They toned it down, tried to have a broader appeal, left behind the uniquely English problems and complaints, and effectively watered themselves, and the show, down.
That’s not to say “The Grand Tour” isn’t exceedingly enjoyable, it’s just also imminently forgettable in a way “Top Gear” never was. As soon as I watched an episode each week I very promptly forgot it, because it has lost its uniqueness. It tries desperately with half-hearted gags about dying celebrity guests, and weird “Conversation Corners” to pretend it’s just a new name for an old show, but it’s all an act. Somehow with the bigger budgets and lack of boundaries, Clarkson, May, and Hammond have of all but lost their natural boyish charm, and more importantly, their natural ebb and flow with each other.
And unfortunately what remains in TGT, is often uncomfortable to watch in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world. While before I took glee in the hosts antics and their no-holds barred cheekiness, now it takes on an edge of ego and narcissism that sits a bit awkwardly. In the short amount of time since they’ve been off air, the world changed. Where once boys being boys, flaunting astronomical wealth, and making fun of anyone who wasn’t just like them was a welcome change from the vanilla TV elsewhere, these days it’s a bit too reflective of the world around us. Watching the lads spend a prolonged portion of an episode more or less playing a live-action “Call of Duty” and living out all their boyhood toy soldier fantasies felt self-indulgent. Listening to them go to other countries and pretend the British Empire thrives when the Brexit is about to accomplish what a loss of countless colonies, territories, and two world wars couldn’t – reducing Britain to a small, relatively unimportant island nation – seems practically negligent.
Both “Top Gear” and “The Grand Tour” exist to be an escapist fantasy for petrol-heads. A place where three guys who love what they do and whose camaraderie makes you wish you could spend just one day hanging out and driving fast cars with them. It’s supposed to be cheeky and nerdy, charming but cutting, and most of all fun. But the influx of money and all the effort gone into making the show big enough for Amazon has lost much of what drew people in from the start. Now it just feels like a bunch of rich guys bored by their lavish lifestyles, desperately seeking that next big thrill that never quite succeeds in making them feel alive again.
But don’t take my word for it. The whole season is now available to binge on Amazon Prime. Give it a go and see if you can make it through more than two episodes in a row.
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