Die-hard Top Gear fans, such as myself, have been softly complaining for years now. The greatest car show on Earth is still the greatest car show ever, but it hasn't been as great as it once was. Something was gone, but exactly what was missing was a bit intangible. But this past Sunday it returned, for an incredibly brief moment.
I'm not sure when Top Gear lost its missing piece. Maybe it was somewhere after the Middle East special, or even before. It was certainly still there when the team crossed the Andes in the Bolivia special, and we see brief hints of it flashing by through other specials since, like a waft of warm, fine chocolate hitting the nostrils as you walk past an open bakery.
Whatever that hint was, it was definitely gone by the time hosts Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond designed a car for the elderly, and any passing mention of a Spanish road trip in super convertibles or a Ford Transit hovervan totally killed it.
But still I watched, almost by rote. Episode after episode, being mildly entertained, but no more than that. It's not like Top Gear's been totally dead – like I said, Top Gear is still the greatest car show on Earth, though it's an achievement akin to Norway having the world's most entertaining curling team simply because they like to wear funny pants. It's not a very high bar to clear, and while the sheer spectacle of it all is a distraction in its own right, it's enough to remind you of the time that you had a laugh wearing funny pants.
Even though it's not the same. It's a bit like seeing The Who in 2015 instead of seeing The Who in 1975. Most of the bits are there, though that original energy has faded.
But this past Sunday, I saw vividly what had only been obliquely gestured towards with a wink and a nudge for the past few years. Clear as day, clear as my own fingers in front of my face. I scarcely believed what I was seeing and hearing, and I still have my doubts as to whether or not I actually saw it, in a dinky little film about a Land Rover of all places, but there it was.
The missing piece.
That sense of tangible, totally unscripted humanity that had almost been totally sanitized and cleansed out over the past few seasons. As Top Gear grew into a juggernaut, as it became the most popular regular TV show on Earth, it's almost felt as if the hosts and executive producer Andy Wilman had lost control of their baby. Rather than the team dictating how they wanted their show to be, the show itself dictated how it wanted its team to be.
So instead of real jokes, real conflict, real relationships, we long-term viewers got scripted approximations of the things we had once regularly seen. Instead of James and Richard profanely yelling at Jeremy for completely screwing up a search for the best road in the world and leading the entire team to a congested simulacrum of Italy, while they sat in uncomfortable, torturous specially-lightened supercars, we got James wanly complaining about his doves escaping.
Everything had become so perfectly planned, so intricately calculated to provide maximum Top Geary-ness, that it became a sterilized version of its former self. But what made Top Gear so great, originally, was that it was precisely what every other car show was not. It was imperfect, imprecise, and things could genuinely go wrong. As opposed to some guy with hair that's too long and shiny or too short and perfectly coiffed bleating on about how "we just gotta get this build done!" when there's no real risk of ever, remotely, hardly missing an arbitrary self-imposed deadline.
As opposed to something going wrong because the team meant it to go wrong, in a planned, safe environment. It was no longer about what we wanted, but what everyone thought we wanted.
(Let me take a moment, as an aside, to acknowledge the recent Patagonia special. Yes, things went wrong there, but if the producers and writers and hosts originally had their way, nothing would've gone wrong at all. We'd have had more boring car soccer, which we've already seen a few times now, while Clarkson pratfalled his way into a state of permanent catatonia. It's definitely not like I'm demanding anyone put themselves in serious danger, however, as that would just be monstrous.)
And yet, in this oddball little feature celebrating a Land Rover that isn't really going away, a glimmer of that intangibility had returned. Right about when Richard Hammond was sure he was about to die.
For those who haven't yet seen the episode, the context was that Hammond would re-create a famous Land Rover ad from 1995, in which a Defender winched itself up a hydroelectric dam. The original ad itself was a bit of a farce, as the Defender never actually scaled the dam and only did so through the use of television magic. But Hammond himself would really do it.
Scaling a dam with an old Land Rover using a winch isn't the easiest thing in the world, and required a winch so big and strong that it actually required a separate engine in the back of the vehicle, placed on a gimbal so that it wouldn't be starved of fuel from the angle. But beyond an incredibly strong winch, it didn't appear as if there would be any additional safety equipment. No plainly visible roll cage, no extra safety belts, no helmet to keep Hammond's poor previously-addled brains in place should any piece of the equipment fail and send him tumbling more than 100 feet below.
Of course, since I actually love Hammond's work, and along with the rest of the BBC would hate to see him splatter, he had a safety and rescue crew to help him winch himself up.
But there was a complication. In the original commercial, the Landie scaled a relatively smooth and shallow damn. The real dam-scaling would involve a cobbled, convex wall, and at its steepest the front wheels Hammond's little Land Rover actually broke with the surface, and provided no control at all.
This was a problem, as the winch had to be perfectly aligned in order to do its work. And when the lack of control was at its worst, the safety and rescue team ordered Hammond to stop, leaving him literally hanging while they adjusted the equipment. Which was quite terrifying, as Hammond so deftly explained to his team how long they had before he pulled the plug on the whole stunt:
Honestly, mate, you've got about 20 seconds. I'm fucking scared and I really mean it.
He tried to distract himself from what was going on by returning to his more than 20-plus years of experience as a broadcaster, remembering to present the show as it was written, but the peril made any semblance of continuing with a script really just seemed inconsequential at the moment:
Okay, take your mind off it, take your mind off it. Um. This... ARRGGHH... water behind this dam can supply Birmingham with 79 million gallons a day.
Who gives a fuck right now?
It's actually almost painful to watch, seeing the Hamster in real, actual fear. All three of the hosts have endeared themselves to millions, and it's not fun or funny to see a real, live, actual person, with a wife and children and family and friends and loved ones, actually question how much longer their own existence would continue.
But here we were. And though the danger soon passed, and the show ended on a lighthearted note less than two minutes later, for what felt like the first time in years we'd been able to see a real, unscripted emotion on the face of a Top Gear host. It was in a regular bit, absent of any artificial creation.
That's what had been missing this whole time.
Yes, it is a bit unnerving that a host had to glimpse his own demise to remove the dull crud of years of reviews in overpowered hypercars, imagined feuds with the same people, and pretend crises, but yet.
Here it was.
Of course, to be a cynic and a skeptic, all of this could've been manufactured. Hammond could've been supremely confident in his rescue crew, and his terror could've all just been more play-acting.
It didn't feel that way, however. And I think that's what we've always wanted from Top Gear. Yes, it could've been scripted and fake, but it didn't always feel that way, not in the older episodes. It felt like three guys, who loved cars and each other, just having a good time.
No tricks, no plastic.
Well, mostly real.