At last, the first episode of the second season of Amazon’s The Grand Tour aired last night. Armed with the knowledge that it would be the episode in which we see Richard Hammond’s Rimac Concept One crash, it cast a darkly anticipatory atmosphere over the viewing. But, despite a few snags, the episode generally wasn’t bad. It was just Top Gear.
(Full disclosure: Amazon wanted us to see the first episode of the second season of The Grand Tour so badly that it invited us out to the show’s premiere in Brooklyn, where tons of food and an open bar also waited.)
Sadly, this is kind of what I was worried about. Jeremy Clarkson, Hammond and James May had a distinctive, tried and true formula worked out on Top Gear. Which, fine... for Top Gear. With The Grand Tour, they had the money and resources to do pretty much whatever they wanted. New and experimental formats. Taking some risks. Being different.
But why fix what isn’t broken, right?
In this episode, the three gallivant around Switzerland in a Lamborghini Aventador S (driven by Clarkson and representing the fuel-burning past), a Honda NSX (driven by May and representing the hybrid-performance present) and the Rimac Concept One (driven by Hammond and representing the electric future). That film is interrupted twice: once by the news segment from last season, Conversation Street, and by a new celebrity segment called Celebrity Faceoff.
Celebrity Faceoff is a welcome relief from Celebrity Brain Crash, which everyone universally hated. In this new format, two celebrities banter with Clarkson for a bit and then go out and set a lap on the show’s new road course in a Jaguar F-type four-cylinder. If the choice of car alone isn’t indicative of a monetary step up from the old show, then I don’t know what is.
During the premiere, Clarkson revealed that the producers have indeed heard the criticism that their previous season was too scripted, so he promised a more or less “unscripted” episode later on in the season, to take place in Croatia. But wouldn’t that assurance alone tacitly also confirm that the show is actually very scripted?
I understand that this is television, and as television entertainers, the trio must create characters of themselves: personalities with distinctive tastes and opinions that are easy for audience members to follow. It’s why Clarkson endlessly rants on about the glory of the past. Noisy cars that run on old-fashioned gasoline are the best. Old music is far superior to anything of the present. He’s a walking embodiment of nostalgia. Fine.
But the scripted nature of the show also got itself into some awkward and forced dialogue. Clarkson calls Hammond’s Rimac a “lady shaver” and says that the only people who eat salads are “women.” Was this an attempt at humor? (The phlegmy guffaws of the people sitting behind me at the event certainly made it seem so.)
Those comments stuck out because they came out of nowhere and were met with zero response from May or Hammond, so they kind of just stuck out on their own. And they weren’t remotely clever or funny.
Without wasting too much more time trying to dissect the low-effort statements, I will just say that both men and women shave and eat salads. It’s not a big deal.
Where Amazon’s budget did shine through was all in the technical aspects of the show. There was extremely impressive footage, capture via masterful drone operating. The shots were cinematic in feel and quality. The colors and the scenery were lovely. It’s a very beautiful show to watch, with camerawork that maintains the adept, wordless manner of storytelling that was so captivating about Top Gear.
I started watching this episode wanting to be absolutely blown away by the choice of cars and what the hosts were allowed to do in them. That part of me wasn’t disappointed. The challenges in cheap cars were always a great time, but I also loved the films where super cars dominated the screen time. They’re cars that only exist in the abstract for so many of us, so seeing them driven around, getting into trouble and filmed by a professional crew somewhere that isn’t a Cars and Coffee really brings them to life.
The footage Hammond’s crash, as you’ll learn in the episode, was taken from the YouTube footage that we all saw months ago because it happened after the finish line at the hill climb, where there were no cameras set up. But the crew was also able to supply a couple minutes of breathless footage where firefighters attempt to put out the car fire and another team of paramedics tend to Hammond, finally airlifting him from the scene in a helicopter. There was no speaking.
I was anxious leading up to that moment. Knowing that something terrible is about to happen is a totally different beast than being surprised by it.
Afterwards, the film ended and we jumped right back into the studio segment, where James May, without batting an eye, rolled right into announcing their results of the hill climb. At first, I was stunned that the three didn’t break character at all to express relief that their co-host and friend wasn’t more seriously injured.
But upon second viewing, I think that this was the best way they could have presented the crash. Hammond didn’t die and he wasn’t even really that badly hurt. The crash happened months ago, which means that Clarkson and May have had plenty of time to extend their sympathies. From there, you can either let fear of it happening again rule your days, or you can keep doing what you love doing and understand the risk involved.
You could definitely tell that Hammond’s crash messed up the original plans for the episode, though. The segments in the middle when the three are driving around aimlessly through the city felt a lot like filler. But, overall, the episode was entertaining and fun that didn’t demand too much from the viewer. An easy watch. It was another Top Gear episode. But with different branding and more money.
A few things weren’t touched upon this episode that I hope will be cleared up soon. Who is the new test driver? And is that half-pavement, half-gravel track the new, official test track? Or will we be returning to the Eboladrome?
We’ll have to wait and see.