“Operation Desert Stumble” is the title of the second episode of The Grand Tour, and it’s surprisingly fitting one. Like most of the ill-advised military adventures into other countries we’ve seen in the last decade and a half, it is big, expensive, full of explosions, and it leaves everyone wondering what its goal really was—or what it actually accomplished.

The first episode of the former Top Gear trio’s new Amazon show suffered from the nagging problem of trying too hard to be Top Gear. The second episode has the boys, in some ways, a bit more comfortable in their new roles, but this time the problem was that it came off too much like Top Gear’s widely-panned India Special than any of their better foreign excursions. In short, the episode was incredibly contrived and not nearly as much fun as it should have been.

The episode brings the trio’s globetrotting tent to South Africa, where we start off on the wrong foot with forced, unfunny jokes about President Jacob Zuma and the local wildlife that fail to land in any meaningful way. At times it feels like it’s trying to have old Top Gear’s nationalistic, middle-finger-in-the-air British humor, but executed so that it goes out of its way not to truly offend people. The show can’t have it both ways.

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From there we move to a test of the Aston Martin Vulcan, and I’ll give the show points for this one—the test is done well, for the most part, even if the gags about Clarkson being unable to get in or stalling out are all things we’ve seen before. But the track test is solid, full of loud and good noises, and gave me a newfound respect for the Vulcan, a car we’ve written about here but one I’ve never given much thought to.

Unfortunately it’s one step forward and two steps back with a lap by Mike Skinner, the American, whose cracks about NASCAR and deer hunting and trucks and Vin Diesel are real groaners. And isn’t Skinner from California? Why does he talk like my relatives from East Texas?

But it’s the centerpiece sequence of the episode where things really fall down. Clarkson, Hammond and May get sent to the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center in Jordan to, ostensibly, learn to be special forces soldiers and rescue the “Queen” from bad guys.

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But... why? Why are we doing this, Grand Tour? What’s the point? There’s an Audi S8 so the car angle gets covered, kind of, but what could have been an interesting story about special forces operators is instead just three old guys failing badly at Call of Duty cosplay.

Did the gigantic Amazon budget require that every dollar, every cent, get spent, or else? It’s a completely over-the-top spectacle, sure, but it’s seldom engaging to watch.

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People used to ding Top Gear the most when it felt “staged.” This time, the producers have dispensed with any pretense of reality and embraced pure fiction, pure artifice, but without any sort of goal in mind.

So far the show lacks a central mission, a central theme or story, besides “Let’s spend a fuckton of Amazon money and see what happens.” And it proves that even with the biggest budget, a show can still stumble if it doesn’t have focus.

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I still have high hopes for The Grand Tour. I’m glad this trio is back on TV. But I’m hoping that as the episodes—and, hopefully, seasons—progress, it finds that focus. Top Gear was, for the most part, a show about three friends doing stuff in cars. Even with its big budget I don’t feel the new show is pulling that off yet. But I hope it might.

High Points

  • We were divided on this in the internal Jalopnik Slack chat about the episode, but as I mentioned, I liked the Vulcan test until Skinner showed up.
  • The “Spinning” segment in Johannesburg with James May was decent, but I may be biased because I drive an E30 and that’s the kind of shit I do for fun in my spare time. It’s an interesting aspect of car culture that doesn’t seem well-known; I kind of wish the show was more about exploring those stories than what we’ve seen so far. Also, I want to see more old car-related challenges on this show too, like Top Gear often did so well.
  • The banter with the Queen (“You’ll like it, it’s German, like you are”) during the rescue and May’s argument over the role of the monarchy in a modern society while Clarkson was getting shot delivered, for me, the first legitimate laughs I’ve had so far on this show. It needs more lines like that.

Low Points

  • The jokes. The jokes are so bad! Like I said, it feels like they’re trying very hard not to piss anyone off or create more international controversies.
  • Charlize Theron getting eaten by a lion. Ugh. What? Why?
  • The special forces training sequence. It didn’t work.
  • Mike Skinner’s attempts at humor. The schtick would have been hilarious on Top Gear 10 years ago; now it’s tired. What’s Ben Collins up to these days?
  • It’s still too Top Gear, and not always the good Top Gear we want.