Author’s note: I’m only just catching up on episodes now and this review was written in advance when I’ve only seen the first three episodes. Once the season is complete, I’ll write an update on my full thoughts and opinions on the series.
Last November the long awaited “The Grand Tour” debuted much to the delight of fans around the world. Featuring the trio of Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond, the Grand Tour is Amazon’s take on the Top Gear formula. That means lots of races, explosions, and hijinks.
Right off the bat, the show starts off big. The opening scene for episode 1 is a huge driving sequence across the California high desert featuring dozens of cars ala Mad Max remake. At the end of the sequence is a huge sound stage where Clarkson, May, and Hammond announce their return to their massive audience.
It’s an incredibly strong statement coming from the trio. Coming from a low of Clarkson being let go by the BBC, they return with an even bigger show on Amazon. This point is even more poignant considering the lukewarm reception of audiences to BBC’s rebooted Top Gear series.
Top Gear VS Grand Tour?
Clarkson shared in several interviews leading up to the series premiere that audiences can expect more of the old Top Gear in the Grand Tour. In many aspects that statement is true. The show is only 3 episodes in and has managed to feature several exotic cars and hyper cars. The first episode even featured a race between the hyper car holy trinity (the LaFerrari, McLaren P1, and Porsche 918 Spyder), something that the BBC couldn’t arrange when Clarkson and co. were with them. Episode 3 featured the trio on a grand tour of Italy in true Top Gear fashion: Clarkson in an Aston Martin DB11, May in a Rolls Royce Dawn, and Hammond in a Ford Mustang.
However the show is also different in a number of ways.The program is no longer based in Britain; instead the trio has a Grand Tour tent that travels around world from which the show is hosted. The iconic Top Gear test track was replaced by a new track Clarkson jokingly calls the Ebola-dome, because the track is similar in shape to the Ebola virus and the dangerous corners it has.
Unlike the BBC run Top Gear, the Grand Tour is produced by Amazon, an American company. Their influence can be seen a number of ways. Their take on the “tame racing driver” is American NASCAR driver, (driver name). Rather than the silent, enigmatic Stig in test drives we’re treated to his boorish manner and heavy Southern drawl as he bemoans having to drive cars that aren’t muscle cars or pickups.
There are subtle differences as well. Clarkson’s Top Gear has always been big on exaggerating the eccentricities of each presenter (Jeremy is bombastic, Richard is annoying, and James is old fashioned). But American television is known for over-exaggerating drama for ratings and audience impact. Take Gordon Ramsay, for example. Hell’s Kitchen America always shows Gordon getting into confrontations and shouting expletives to shock the audience. In UK television, while Gordon is still known for swearing and the occasional row, his shows don’t lean so heavily on these scenes quite like American television does. The Grand Tour does something similar. In episode 3’s grand tour, Richard Hammond plays very heavily on his annoying and uncouth mannerisms by driving a loud and obnoxious Ford Mustang across Italy in contrast to the other two’s refined choices, an Aston Martin and a Rolls Royce. This is nothing new for Richard Hammond, who is known to be the “American” among the trio. But his delivery feels more exaggerated this time around than in previous outings. He deliberately makes noises and misbehaves with his Mustang. He even has two trucks carrying spare tyres for when he burns through his set doing doughnuts. Their “Celebrity Brain Crash”segment (GT’s answer to TG’s “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car”) features a running gag wherein all invited guests never make it onto the show and die en route to the studio. It’s all very ham-handed and the joke grows stale very quick.
I suppose the question to ask is, “Is this show better than the new Top Gear?” The answer, I believe, depends on who is watching. For fans of the old Top Gear, nothing will ever beat out the chemistry of the old trio. Despite their antics, Clarkson and co. really work well together and you can see it in every episode. 10 years of working together have really built a rapport between the three and it’s hard to replicate that kind of chemistry where they can feed off of each other’s energy the way they do.
The show is certainly not perfect, as I’ve already mentioned above. It’s worth noting that a single series of Top Gear runs only 7 or 8 episodes. GT is set to run for 13 episodes. How much “car antics” can you actually squeeze out in a single year of production before you run out of ideas and motoring news? At least Top Gear goes on break for a few months before coming out with a new series, even if they do come out in the same year. That way, things are kept fresh and fans are left wanting for more.
Hit or Miss?
(Check ratings). So far the show is very entertaining and it’s really great to see Clarkson and co. back. It definitely has room for improvement but that can be attributed to growing pains under Amazon. In fact, the show has all the potential to be even better than TG ever was. Amazon seems to really believe in the show. They gave GT a monumental budget and they’re making Amazon TV available to over 200 countries just for this show (currently, Amazon TV is only available in 4 countries). We’ll just have to wait and see where they take the program.