For many of us, myself included, Top Gear was the mecca of car shows. Not only was it funny and entertaining, but it also widened the appeal of cars to our friends and family who wouldn’t have otherwise cared in the slightest. By 2015, the show claimed more than 350 million viewers worldwide. That’s a lot of weight on your shoulders to reboot. Here’s how the new crew pulled it off.
We’re only two episodes into the new season, but it’s already damn good—blending humor, cars and locations like only Top Gear can. Chris Harris pits a McLaren P1 against a 720S. Matt LeBlanc takes Harris hunting for Bigfoot. The trio take a road trip across the American West in their choice of V8 cars. What’s impressive is that it all works, given the shoes it had to fill.
It’s also made me realize that while I watched The Grand Tour out of habit, I’ll be watching Top Gear out of interest.
That 350 million viewership figure, noted by then-TG writer Richard Porter in his book And On That Bombshell: Inside the Madness and Genius of Top Gear, still sounds almost unbelievably high, a global success largely built on the chemistry between its hosts at the time.
Admittedly, when word first spread that the Three Amigos (Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond) left the show after Clarkson punched a producer in the face over a sandwich, I was also worried that they would take what made Top Gear Top Gear with them: the humor, the chemistry and the adventures. I was so adamant about hanging onto these familiarities that I was even willing to overlook the glaring downsides to old Top Gear as well: rampant, out-of-touch nationalism, racist remarks and tacky sexism. The show had gone stale seasons ago, I just wasn’t willing to let it go yet because there was no other substitute.
Taking over that mantle was “daunting,” as Chris Harris told me over the phone in a recent interview:
Now, I get plenty of messages from people telling me they love what we’re doing, but I also get messages from people saying they hate me because I’m not one of the three amigos and I shouldn’t be on Top Gear. But that’s just life, isn’t it?
I think it was daunting, but once you decide to do it, you don’t worry about it, you just get on with it.
And the transition wasn’t an instant success. Season 23, Chris Evans’ year, was bleak. Season 24 of new Top Gear (Chris Evans-less Top Gear) started getting that groove back, but it still felt kind of technical and a little unfamiliar and uncertain at times, adolescent in the way that it handled itself.
Now in Season 25 it seems like the show and the hosts have had the time to grown into their roles. The show feels, if possible, even more polished than before, like it improved to fit with new styles and technology afforded to it. The camera angles sharper, the editing crisper, the drone shots more sweeping. Overall, much higher quality stuff.
All of that just goes to compliment how utterly good this show has become. Not just improved from the Chris Evans days, mind you. (Those are dark times that we don’t speak of.) I’m talking from the days of Clarkson, May and Hammond. Part of that, I believe, just comes down to how much younger—physically and emotionally—Harris, Reid and LeBlanc are.
The three hosts’ ages range between 50 for LeBlanc and 38 for Reid, but their willingness to use their bodies as props in their films brings a new dimension to the show that didn’t exist in old Top Gear. Put simply, they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.
For example, in the Bigfoot segment, LeBlanc and Harris take a couple of electric dirt bikes off road and through a forest. And it looks like legitimate off roading! Harris points out that LeBlanc is much more experienced at riding than he is, and it shows. That genuine difference made for a film that was exciting to watch.
When was the last time the Three Amigos did something like that? Other than maybe the Vietnam Special, most of old Top Gear’s final years were spent with Clarkson lamenting at how old and fat he is. There are only so many times you can hear that joke.
So what do you do when that schtick has worn out? You bet on the opposite.
Reid brought up the topic of being not another old dude when I spoke with him on a phone interview, one that quickly became about more than just age, but character. He explained:
I think I’m more relatable than a lot of the typical car journalists. I think I’m probably from a younger generation than some of the more established journalists. And, the younger generation can kind of more relate to me more, I guess, because I’m kind of living out their fantasy.
They can kind of see themselves in me a little bit. I worked my way into the biggest motor environment in the world on television and they can kind of see themselves maybe doing the same thing one day and they can relate to me.
This bit is especially important, not just to Top Gear but to mass market entertainment as a whole. Representation is essential for a diverse audience. Seeing someone that you can relate to, doing something that you love, works wonders for how you can see yourself. In an industry dominated by old, white men, Reid’s presence is refreshing and paramount. You need to see that a space exists before you can visualize yourself in it.
The fact that Top Gear has now given him a platform and the freedom to project his views and broadcast his personality can only do good for an industry that historically hasn’t been terribly diverse.
Reid also admitted to me that in Season 24, they “deliberately went down a path of trying to appeal to hardcore petrolheads.” Which, for existing gear heads, isn’t a problem at all, but also isolates the show from casual viewers who could get intimidated or bored by overtly technical talk.
Which is why, for Season 25, Reid says that they are really gunning for wider audience appeal, something that Top Gear in its Three Amigos incarnation did so well:
We [are] still true to that core of enjoying cars for the sake of cars than just being hardcore petrol heads, but we [are] also opening up ourselves to a new audience as well. Which is people that maybe want a little bit of humor along the way. So, Matt’s influence on the show kind of [manifests] itself in a way that you’ll see much more laughter, particularly among him and Chris. So, they’ve got this kind of budding bromance where they’ll go off and do fun challenges together and, you think like going to find Bigfoot, or messing around in Chris’s 2CV, etc.
And, along the way, they have this bond, which is kind of rooted in comedy... That’s the kind of aim for Season 25. A) to appeal to the petrol heads and B) to appeal to people who maybe don’t care so much about cars that want to see the humor between the guys presenting the show.
And, also, just come along for the ride when we go to these amazing locations and just seeing how the crew shot the show. [It’s for] kicking back and relaxing for an hour on a Saturday or Sunday evening, or just exploring the world with us as we go on our journey.
The comedy part is definitely true, as you’ll find in this season’s two episodes. The chemistry between these three isn’t as familiar as between the old Three, but it’s definitely there and more formed that before. The ribbing comes more easily, the jokes feel fresher. The scenery is just as awesome, but the cars and topics touched upon are just a hair more energetic. It feels like finally shedding your winter coat on the first warm day of spring.
In a talk from last week, Harris agreed with the sentiment that the newest season would focus on reaching a wider audience, saying “I think the broader car community is something we like and want to embrace.”
Chris said that they recognized from the start that they’d never be able to recreate what the Three had done before them, so what would the point of that be? Instead, they would create their own interpretation of the show. And here we are.
Top Gear is a massive franchise, globally known. Even those who don’t know squat about cars know Top Gear. Even facing against this vast following, those in charge of the new version embraced their differences, rather than fighting against them.
With this younger and more diverse group of hosts, you get conversation that’s more vibrant and conspicuously lacking in weird racist faux pas, which speaks to the greater dialogue of who cars are for anyways. (Hint: it’s everyone).