The Grand Tour launched with huge anticipation; veteran entertainers returning with the backing of Amazon, a company with a new-age digital strategy of distribution, without the rules we’d find on public broadcasting. Amazon made a show that is bringing a large existing audience through the pay wall, but did The Grand Tour’s quality meet the standards expected of a paying buyer?
To cut right to the point: If you’re a casual enthusiast and you set time aside in your hectic week’s schedule to just drive your car, then yes, The Grand Tour is a series you should watch. But viewers need to approach the series as if there was no predecessor, or they could be disappointed.
It was by episode two of The Grand Tour that there were rumblings among the die-hard fans that the new show wasn’t all it was hyped up to be. In fact, after watching the first four episodes, my initial reaction was that the Three Amigos and show executive producer Andy Wilman had just pulled a Michael Schumacher un-retirement move—you know, when the legend went to Mercedes after a storied F1 career with Ferrari but proved to be past his prime. (See also Michael Jordan if ball sports are more your thing.)
These were the kings of automotive media after their departure from BBC’s Top Gear, much like Schumacher was after his retirement from Ferrari. But like Schumacher, it felt as if Clarkson, May, Hammond, and Wilman just couldn’t give it all up that fast.
To be fair, it must be incredibly hard for anyone whose mastered their craft to just give it up one day. At that point in life, you’re juggling between two possibilities: Do you fade away and let your hero-status legacy speak for itself, or do you say screw legacy, and continue doing what you love?
In the case of Schumacher, ego played a little role in his decision, but boredom was probably the deciding factor. Living in the F1 circus is like a drug, something hard to get away from once you’re in it. Producing shows like Top Gear is very much the same feeling. You’re running on a high of constant adrenaline, looking for the best locations, attempting more extreme shots, trying to tell the most compelling stories with concise scripts and fun pub-facts that your audience will remember. I know this because I’ve done it, having spent the past few years producing /DRIVE on NBC Sports. Like Schumacher, there’s always the chance you don’t live up to the high expectations you set for everyone.
Is the same going to be true for the Three Amigos? Initial signs suggested yes, but with the conclusion of Season One of The Grand Tour, I think this is going to be a completely different story. I’d actually consider the first season a success. The team should be proud of what they were able to produced in the time table they allocated themselves. Granted, they had a huge paycheck, but they still had to start from scratch.
What shocks me the most is that the team lost an opportunity to completely reinvent themselves right out of the gate. Instead, there are signs the producers are taking an unexpectedly conservative route to reshaping the band over time. The last third of the season was far greater than the first third. There’s a sense of growth we see with Clarkson, Hammond, and May that we never saw with Schumacher when he returned to F1, and that’s the most compelling difference for why there should be excitement for the future of The Grand Tour. That said, it could easily go sour if they don’t nail their opening episodes for Season Two.
But the most compelling reason for why I think The Grand Tour can be considered a success: it genuinely feels like the boys on camera are having a good time. They’re enjoying life, and like all success stories in our world, the people who enjoy what they do are normally the most successful. Towards the tail end of their reign with BBC’s biggest property, Clarkson looked especially tired on camera in his final episodes.
But now with The Grand Tour, there was a new sense of being and excitement for the crew. They all look alive on camera, and the team behind the scenes show their commitment with how well produced and polished each of the pieces have. That gives me hope for what’s next.
In order to fully digest the new series, I’ve broken down what I found to be the good and the bad below.
PRODUCTION QUALITY: Like I wrote in my analysis of the first episode, the production team of W. Chump & Sons is the best in the business. But a special note of credit goes to the editors and sound engineers. They make the rest of us in the industry look like punks with a BitTorrented copy of Final Cut Pro. The sound design and music choice is top notch.
CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: The most unexpected element of The Grand Tour was seeing the trio on camera develop throughout the series. Hammond is actually becoming a good driver, and I’m not just referencing a segment where he learns how to drift at Michelin’s proving grounds in a BMW M4. We actually see editors using more in-car footage of his slides, with him actually wheeling the car instead of a masked stunt driver.
Clarkson has moved back to his roots of educating the audience and providing surgical humor, jokes delivered with a scalpel versus a hammer; he’s moving away from the loud and blunt tall man he once was. We see more of Clarkson the writer and less of Clarkson the blowhard, and that’s good for all.
And for James May, he’s less of the estranged godfather you felt awkward hugging and more like an uncle you want to have a beer with. He’s gone from not really caring to truly, deeply not giving a shit on the road trips, but really trying to educate the audience when he’s looking straight down the barrel of a lens. Theres a sense he moved away from the world of entertainment and could happily retire as a professor of his own university.
THE TENT: I’ve said before that the tent must be a logistical nightmare for people on The Grand Tour production team. But looking back at the series and each of the locations visited, the array of unique backdrops and locations is spectacular. The Grand Tour is going to be considered one of the first new-age digital international television show, one that remarkably enough, has never been licensed to a television network.
I only wish they would do more local pieces related to the tent’s location, like they did in South Africa with James May going to a BMW E30 Spinning meet. It seems a unique opportunity to explore new, undiscovered car cultures that isn’t being taken advantage of enough.
WRITING: And finally, if all the other reasons haven’t convinced you to watch The Grand Tour yet, then you should just for the writing. The scripts are designed in a way that keeps you interested with relatable analogies while also providing viewers ammunition to bring with them to the local bar to show off their car knowledge. They had some weird missteps in localization attempts, like that ice cream joke nobody understood, but for the most part the dialogue was sharp. And I genuinely believe the Clarkson’s review of the new Lexus GS and Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio are some of his best ever.
LAWYERS: The lawyers are preventing this show from becoming something spectacular. Amazon is so vigilant about not getting sued by the BBC for doing similar things to Top Gear that it sometimes left writers and producers struggling to deliver new ideas.
Case in point: the American test driver which replaces the Stig, since a silent test driver would be grounds for lawsuit by the BBC. Though I like Mike Skinner as a person and driver, his character just doesn’t work for the show. This is a perfect example of how lawyers at a round table are influencing decisions in a writer’s room—a potentially lethal poison if gone unchecked.
Furthermore, the lack of guest interviews on The Grand Tour is once again not a creative choice but a legal restraint. It eliminated one more tool that could be used to fulfill the appetite to a broader audience. The result—having “celebrities” on the show only to kill them off immediately—was funny in concept but lacked execution that hit the mark.
That said, the final episode featuring Red Bull Racing F1 driver Daniel Ricardo was perfectly executed, quite literally. Small things like the crew talking to Andy Wilman via text message as opposed to “the producers” seem like sensible alternatives to past Top Gear gags, even using a traffic light instead of flagger is perfectly logical. But how is it the lawyers never banned James May’s signature shit-dance?
STUDIO/TENT SEGMENTS: Despite the ingenuity of the traveling tent, the segments inside often felt like time-killing. Conversation Street, the news segment with elements of self deprecation, does work, but I tend to believe the audience has grown out of such gimmicks. Few things that happened within were truly memorable.
LOST OPPORTUNITY: As I mentioned earlier, the Three Amigos and Wilman had an opportunity to reinvent themselves, to start completely fresh. On the onset, it looked as if they didn’t even try. But looking at the whole portfolio of content, it seems they are going for the long-game incremental transition over time. It’s the safer bet, but that means by Season Two, the show absolutely needs to start having a new voice.
In an age where we are over saturated by shit mind-less content, the guys that are the best in the business need to come back with less scripted play and more genuine moments on their travel docs, and hit me with the in-depth stories on the individual car reviews. There’s a demand for this high quality aspirational content; let’s hope The Grand Tour fills the void.
WHERE IT CAN IMPROVE
FIND AN ENEMY: Howard Stern was at his prime when he was being fined by the FCC on a regular basis before he went to satellite radio in the United States. He and his show’s audience had a common enemy they could relate with and fight against. I still can’t identify who The Grand Tour’s antagonist is supposed to be. Even Top Gear ragged on other countries or Priuses or environmentalism or political correctness, which got it into trouble more than a few times.
PRODUCTION TEAM SIZE: It is easy to identify when a show is tripping over itself while in production on the road. It became obvious with how the edit flowed that the Nambia Off-Road Buggy special may have been a little too big for the dynamic and nomadic elements the show requires.
SEEING BEHIND THE CURTAIN: At the end of Season One of The Grand Tour, we show a glimpse into all the failures of Clarkson and Hammond at drifting cars on their Ebola-Drome race track. I think the audience enjoys seeing the presenters fail, these are self deprecating moments that could easily buy time and be trickled into the actual segment films.
Halfway through the first season, I was already crafting my Michael Schumacher analogy for this review. But I also recognized that I was watching on Amazon, which automatically makes me feel I need to binge watch, perfect for the new generation of media consumption.
In an age of low-quality DIY content where it feels like anyone with a GoPro and a YouTube channel thinks they can rocket to stardom, watching The Grand Tour on Amazon is a welcome escape, a warm and comfortable series that will have you laughing when you need it most.
Though I think the show can improve on many of its new concepts, I was laughing more than expected in the second half of the season. As someone who creates and consumes automotive content for a living, The Grand Tour brought welcome lessons. I hope the producers double down on such educational segments into Season Two.
So a word to the producers and show runners: Make shows you would enjoy, don’t just make content you think we will enjoy. Never dumb it down for us, we’ll play catch up—don’t worry.
J.F. Musial is a New York-based producer and director of automotive content. He founded TangentVector, the automotive-centric production company that spawned /DRIVE. He now makes content for automakers and racing series like WEC and F1, and documentaries like APEX: The Story of the Hypercar.