“Opera, Art and Donuts,” was the rallying cry of the third episode of The Grand Tour. One of us is convinced this episode was good enough that it should have been GT’s first episode, a solid return to form with motoring TV’s favorite trio; one of us is still bored.
In this one, Jeremy Clarkson and Co. pitch their tent in Whitby, England. They embark on a trip around some of Italy’s greatest cities in an Aston Martin DB11, a Rolls-Royce Dawn and a Dodge Challenger Hellcat (curiously, none of those are Italian) to create a modern-day take on an antiquated British pastime.
In between the Italian segments, we learned that Celebrity Brain Crash was weirdly still a thing and that James May and Richard Hammond made good on their bet to demolish Clarkson’s house.
How did it go? We’re divided this time.
Kristen Lee: I thoroughly enjoyed this episode. I was on the fence about the first two, borderline disliking them. They just felt too much. Too much noise, too much forced conversation, too much editing and high contrast high saturation color correcting, too much hey look at how much money we get to spend now. Over compensation. Those aspects were extremely distracting.
What was nice about “Opera, Art and Donuts” was that it felt like the three got back into their groove again. The chemistry returned and you got the feeling like they chose the cars, not like the cars were chosen for them. Everything calmed down mightily. There were still stubbly bits, but overall, I was very pleased.
Michael Ballaban: Another bad episode with overtly staged crap. Yes, yes, I know, “Top Gear was always staged,” but as The Grand Tour continues, I’ve come to the increasing realization that either the writers are phoning it in, the hosts are phoning it in, or both.
It’s a bit like watching a band that was huge 10 years ago still try to churn out another album now that they’ve all got money and everyone’s sober. Instead of a show that was ostensibly for adults but was childish, we got a show that was marketed at adults but was actually for children. It now almost feels like the sort of show that thinks a rousing game of peekaboo will still get our rocks off. Instead of growing with us as an audience, it actually somehow feels like all of that money and all of that globe-trotting has somehow made it all feel smaller.
It wasn’t a return to glory, a return to what made us love the old show. It was an odd simulacrum of things that used to work. They were playing the same song, but all the notes were off-key.
Kristen: Sure, there were aspects of last night’s episode that didn’t land! I’m still mystified as to why Celebrity Brain Crash was still being dragged along. It wasn’t funny the first time, certainly not the second time and exasperating this time.
Perhaps instead of having two British cars and an American car, the cars could have all been Italian because they were taking an Italian trip. I think, however, that my biggest problem with last night’s episode was that it lacked an objective.
So they go to Italy. Cool! They have some beautiful and brand new cars to play with. Alright! They have cities to hit. Sure! And then what? It just seemed like they were driving around Italy, staying in different hotels, eating different foods and doing donuts. They weren’t looking for anything in particular and there were no challenges to be had. When the episode ended, I found myself asking, what was the point of that? What was the point of going to Italy?
But I think we should also remember that not every episode of Top Gear landed, either. Oftentimes, we picked out certain segments to watch on YouTube over and over again—and these were the ones that stood out in Episode Three.
They captured the essence and the cinematic signature of Top Gear and you could see it and hear it: in the gratuitous shots of the guys passing one another on the highway and in the non-diegetic piano music that recalled Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi’s work.
This episode reminded me of one of my favorite Top Gear challenges, when the trio embarked upon an epic road trip across Europe in search of the perfect driving heaven. In that episode, too, they were free to select their own cars and as soon as you saw the selections you just knew that they had chosen right. The only difference there was that there was a clear-cut purpose to that episode.
I have also laughed to myself every time Jeremy Clarkson drives an Aston Martin with a big, honking V12 after Top Gear’s season 13 ending. “I just can’t help thinking that, thanks to all sorts of things...the environment, the economy… the relentless war on speed,” he groused in 2009, exposing us all to a bit of fear-mongering, “cars like these will soon be consigned to the history books. I just have this horrible, dreadful feeling that what I’m driving here is an ending.”
Ballaban: I think you’re actually speaking towards my broader point. We know from the histories that the all-time objectively worst episode of Top Gear was the India Special. Without a shadow of a doubt, that was a contrived, scripted dumpster fire with absolutely no purpose to it. Everyone would have loved if The Grand Tour learned the best lessons from Top Gear, and while they likely can’t use Einaudi’s music due to licensing issues, there’s no reason it can’t crib from the playbook of driving to find a great road.
But instead in this episode, much like the India Special, there was no point. It was a re-hash of “three old men go on vacation and nothing happens. Sometimes cheesy scripted ‘hijinks’ ensue, and it’s even worse than the tedium.”
Which confirms all of our worst fears about this new show. We went into hoping—praying, really—that the episodes of Top Gear we all loved were in spite of BBC conservatism and pressures, not because of it. With the expanded freedoms of the internet and a massively bloated budget, surely the id of the original show would be distilled into its purest form, and we could see what Andy Wilman, Clarkson, Hammond, and May were capable of when they were truly unshackled.
The Grand Tour did learn lessons from Top Gear, but seemingly the worst ones. We loved the silly gifts in the Vietnam Special because they seemed absurd, spontaneous and inspired. Now they get Hammond a silly gift and we know what’s going to happen with it from beginning to end, because “silly gift” was apparently all anyone at Amazon took from that incident.
At this point, we’re basically saying, “We like this show because it reminded us of what it used to be.” But there’s no way we could enjoy it for what it is. It’s been too long. We’ve seen it all before.
Kristen: I don’t think throwbacks and nods should discredit the genuinely funny bits from the episode, nor should they sour the hope that the coming episodes can be worse.
Again, I’ll wager that this should have been the first The Grand Tour episode because at least then I would have been more forgiving of the first and second episodes if I had seen this one before them.
Ballaban: I guess I’ll be watching the next episode. But I’m not sure I care.