Top Gear Series 27: Here We Go Again. The biggest motoring show in the world (or second-biggest, depending on your thoughts about The Grand Tour) is back, yet again with a rebooted trio of hosts set out to recapture the nerdy, knowledgable absurdity of a motoring show in a constant state of change and decline. So has New New New New Top Gear finally found some footing?
I actually think it might.
During the airing of series 22, Jeremy Clarkson punched a guy and he and co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May bailed for a big deal with Amazon Prime. Series 23 was fucking weird, bringing in British radio host Chris Evans, a man all of the screen presence and charisma of someone who thinks painting Ferraris white is a personality trait, American actor Matt LeBlanc, and a gaggle of other part-time hosts including the lovely Sabine Schmitz, relatable Rory Reid, befuddling Eddie Jordan and wheelman Chris Harris.
For series 24, that Evans guy quit over sexual misconduct allegations at the BBC, and the main hosting jobs rightfully went to LeBlanc, Harris and Reid.
That trio thankfully stuck around for series 25, building on their chemistry and creating some fairly entertaining television in the process. But then series 26 was cut short following LeBlanc’s departure, and the main hosting trio received its fourth major shakeup in six seasons.
It’s been a mess, and the numbers reflect it. The final episode of series 22 ranked in at 6.92 million UK viewers. The final episode of series 26 brought in just 2.4 million viewers there—a drop of about two-thirds of its viewership, according to the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board. (It’s worth noting that some changes may have been made whether or not LeBlanc left on his own terms, to be frank.)
For Series 27, which debuted last night on BBC America but has already aired four episodes over on the BBC proper, LeBlanc and Reid are gone, leaving internet star Chris Harris to be joined by cricketer Freddie Flintoff and comedian Paddy McGuinness.
So what do the two, seemingly random UK caricatures with thick accents and bloke jokes bring to the show? Surprisingly, a lot of genuine fun and entertainment that finally moves Top Gear away from scripted one liners and uncomfortable studio segments and takes a rather interesting turn towards more of a physical comedy show.
Right off the start, the trio of Harris, Flintoff and McGuinness are chummy, catching each other off-guard during the studio introductions and playfully shoving each other around. It’s charming, and doesn’t feel too staged, but we don’t really know who the two new guys are, and McGuinness definitely trails behind the on-screen presence of the other two early in the runtime.
As the show has been formatted for years, this episode features a big travel adventure film split up throughout the show, with the other major highlight a Chris Harris comparison of the new Ferrari 488 Pista against the McLaren 600LT.
The Ferrari film is a little simple, with Harris highlighting the Ferrari’s drift mode, but knocking it for its aging interior design carried over from the 488 and 458 before it. As usual he is knowledgable and skilled in the driving, but it’s very formulaic for the first big car review of the new series. It’s always hard to get people to care about super expensive, fast exotics, but Top Gear occasionally can pull it off. Just not this time.
Against the McLaren, Harris tries to claim the 600LT is a corner carver, more precise and more engaging than the Ferrari, but the film’s editing lets this down by showing both cars enjoying a nearly insufferable amount of sideways action, counter to Harris’ point. In the end, his conclusion that the 600LT is the more desirable choice for him just feels abrupt and synthesized. All of the press release information was there, but ultimately the review felt a little aimless and didn’t seem very coherent.
The big film of the episode seeks to resolve the issue of introducing two new hosts with a big Ethiopian road trip, with the trio driving copies of each of the presenters’ first cars. For McGuinness it’s a plucky Ford Escort (Correction: Article originally had it as a Cortina. With much regret.), for Harris it’s an original Mini Cooper, and for Flintoff, who had more money than god at 22 (when he bought his first car) due to his sports career, it’s a damn Porsche Boxster. Must be nice.
The Ethiopian film goes a long way in establishing the personalities of the three hosts and their interactions with one another. It’s a bunch of bantering, and it feels like each is trying to get the others off-guard or make them laugh, rather than make the audience laugh, which I enjoyed. Seeing them entertain each other is entertaining for me, and it’s similar fun to the aggressive chemistry of the old Clarkson, Hammond and May bickering and playfighting.
The highlight of the episode for me is a sequence where McGuinness has to change a flat, Harris has him drive the Escort rally-style into a ditch since he doesn’t have a jack stand, and a pantsless Flintoff helps Harris climb on the rear of the Escort to keep the wheel off the ground for the swap, making Harris very uncomfortable in the process. It’s very funny, at the expense of Harris.
And that’s a theme that seems to run through the show, with Harris being a constant punching bag—sometimes literally, Flintoff strangely is always grabbing and hitting at Harris in a big-brother fashion, with plenty of jokes about his weight, his height, his hair, and one of the most alarming moments comes when Flintoff rubs a blindfold against his ass before throwing it on Harris’ face. This is what I mean by the Jackass-like behavior of the new hosts, and it kind of works.
The bullying definitely skews against Harris, but he handles it well and often fires back without anything feeling forced or staged, but rather improvised and clever. They’re having fun, and I’m having fun watching.
By the end of this first episode, I concluded that I like the new trio—though it’s admittedly a step backwards in terms of diversity, unfortunately—and they have genuine, if sometimes aggressive chemistry. Some of the presentation comes across a little hammy, like Flintoff’s appeal to the audience that purchasing a Porsche at 22 wasn’t exactly healthy for his ego and taught him some life lessons, and McGuinness doesn’t quite feel comfortable in the studio yet, but ultimately I was interested enough to roll into episode two.
Not completely convinced by episode one, episode two checked a lot more boxes to make for an entertaining program. This episode is all about the electric car, with Harris reviewing the Tesla Model 3, and all three hosts challenged to build their own version of the ultimate modified electric sports car.
The Model 3 review reveals Harris as the nerd of the show, with a lot of focus on performance figures and lap times. In fact, that seems to be a running theme for the entire series so far. Every challenge, whether its driving their first cars in Ethiopia, reviewing the Pista against the 600LT in the first episode, or comparing the Model 3 to the rest of the compact performance sedan class, or their slap-dash EV modified cars, every challenge ultimately leads to a timed competition, perhaps as a shortcut for reaching some kind of conclusion.
Harris’ Model 3 review is fine, with a fun line thrown in that the car is “a very fast fridge,” void of the same handling capability and resonating driving connection as the comparable Alfa Romeo Giulia or BMW M3. But just like with the first episode’s Ferrari and McLaren shootout, this episode’s conclusions about electric cars seem contradictory.
In the Model 3 film, Harris says the Tesla offers a long enough range for most drivers’ daily needs, around or over 200 miles. But in the big challenge of the episode, where McGuinness makes cosmetic modifications to a used Nissan Leaf, Flintoff loads half a Tesla battery in the back of a Subaru Brat, and Harris shows up in a Triumph Spitfire with BMW i3 batteries, the team’s conclusion about EVs contradicts Harris’ Tesla review.
The whole film features a reoccurring gag about EV range anxiety, with McGuinness and his used Leaf having to stop for a recharge multiple times during the road trips, and again during the final 24-minute endurance race. They throw in lines that, on an EV, a “100 mile range is actually more like 50 miles,” which is factually inaccurate and misleading. That’s not too much of a surprise for Top Gear, but then later in the film they admit that the Leaf has suffered serious battery degradation and used EVs really aren’t that good. So then, range anxiety isn’t really a problem? It’s all very incoherent.
What the homemade EV sports car challenge does reveal, though, is that these three hosts love picking on each other, and love electrocuting each other even more. It was frankly painful to watch Flintoff repeatedly mash the electrocution button as the others tried to race around a track. I think they might have actually been electrocuting each other.
Some of the gags are a little distracting, but for the most part this episode was a lot of fun. The challenge of building Mad Max dystopian Frankenstein electric cars was a fun premise, the hosts seemed to be able to get under each others’ skin just enough for some fun arguments, and there’s a very weird scene where Flintoff headbutts Harris that feels like something that would not have made it into the previous couple of Series.
Yeah, I think you should. I’m having a surprising amount of fun watching this group.
Do I miss Rory Reid? Yes. Are the new guys good? Yeah, they are. The show still feels a little too safe and familiar, and I don’t think the stories being told are nearly as strong as Clarkson, Hammond, and May in their prime.
But it’s still the only motoring show with resources of this scale, save for The Grand Tour, and it’s creeping away from the transparently formulaic, staged and scripted rut it’s been in for a few series and seemingly onto something a little more relaxed, improvised, and even a little chaotic. It feels just new enough to keep me intrigued, and I might just finish the season this time.
New episodes air on BBC America Sundays at 8 p.m. Did you watch the first episode last night? Let us know what you thought.