Holy hallelujah, the car show is back. For a while there, my Sundays were spent looking forward to Game of Thrones and Westworld, sadly bereft of the plucky British motoring show that’s generally accepted as the automotive canon. I am now happy to report that Top Gear is once again back on the list of Things To Watch On Sunday At All Costs.
The show’s season premiere last night is the culmination of two years of drama that started with former host Jeremy Clarkson punching a producer, getting fired for it, taking his mates to Amazon for a very expensive and decidedly mixed new car show, then getting replaced over on Top Gear by Chris Evans, who then stepped down because the cast and crew found him to be a psychotic asshole and audiences loathed him too. Got all that?
What’s left to rise from the ashes like a phoenix are Chris Harris, Rory Reid and Matt LeBlanc, and last night’s episode shows how much better the show—and us fans—are for it.
The first thing you’ll notice about Series 24 is that the studio has been completely changed. It looks way more modern. The host seating area doesn’t have the same single-chair-plus-loveseat configuration anymore—it’s two couches now, which suggests that the host hierarchy is now a thing of the past. Will coverage be evenly delegated between the three? We’ll see!
Top Gear has never had a problem reminding you that it’s Top Gear. We’ve come to expect to see the best cinematography. The best scenery. The best cars. And last night’s episode went straight to the top shelf with the Ferrari FXX K (which belongs to investment firm founder Michael Luzich) in the capable hands of Chris Harris.
It is easily one of the most epic Top Gear segments to date. The frame tightens up and the combination of the crashing music, the scream of the car, the jarring camerawork and Harris’ own awe will certainly send chills up your spine. This right here is why we watch this show.
X-Men actor James McAvoy was the star for last night’s studio segment, hilariously confessing that he drove around for years without having an actual driver’s license. Around him, the three banter with each other as the hosts are supposed to during the studio section, but that’s the part of the show that fell flat. With the hot studio lights on them, the dialogue between the trio feels forced, though I did laugh out loud at some of the jokes.
For the High Mile Challenge, the three headed to Kazakhstan in order to test out three cars with at least 477,710 miles on them—the distance to the moon and back. It’s good to see that the Kazakhstan episode happened at all, as filming there was not without its difficulties.
It’s a familiar formula: see the hosts pull up in the vehicle of their choice, listen to them rib on each other about their picks and start the test. But as I watch this segment, I find that I’m not thinking about Clarkson & Co. Like, at all.
The reason for this is because Reid, Harris and LeBlanc each have enough personality to fill out the bone structure of the show. I suppose it goes without saying that last season’s screamy Chris Evans really just succeeded in making us all cringe and yearn for the old crew.
Without him, the current three shine, bringing different opinions and styles to the screen. It’s still too early to tell what each archetype will be, but I can tell you right now that Reid’s joy is infectious, Harris’ dry humor is welcomed and LeBlanc’s general affability and amusement at his now job all make for a great balance.
After determining which high mile car still runs the best (it was Reid’s London cab), they take it to Baikonur Cosmodrome. It is here that LeBlanc’s voiceover reminds us that even after the explosion of technological advancements that were driven by the Cold War and the rockets that aimed for the moon, we will always have the cars that will take us at least that far.
They watch an unmanned Soyuz rocket take off. The glow of the fiery exhaust plumes lights up the wonder on their faces. It marks the end of the High Mile Challenge and is the final piece in what is a perfect narrative arc.
Back in the studio, we learn that Reid’s black London cab was fitted to a monument in Kazakhstan. And it was nothing like the kind of obnoxious shit that old Top Gear did during the India Special. You can tell that this monument was put there as a symbol of reverence at how a car fits into the narrative of space travel.
There are some things that need work, most notably the studio portions. I’m not terribly worried. When they were out in Kazakhstan, the chemistry between the three was as apparent as their very excitement to be on this show. After Series 23's rough start, it’s good to see the show finally getting its feet under itself and grow in its own direction.
The secret lay in the three hosts all along. Who knew?