I’m an enormous fan of the UK version of Top Gear and have seen every episode at least three times. After it was announced the show would return with a new cast, I was both hopeful and apprehensive to see what had happened to my beloved franchise. Now that I’ve seen the first episode, I think it might’ve been better to let it die.
SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want to know what happens in the first of a series that isn’t story driven and comprised of a series of skits featuring cars, then don’t read ahead. For everyone else, carry on.
Last night, I got the chance to watch the very first episode of the long-awaited season 23 opener for the only show I’ll watch on the day it’s released—Top Gear.
It boasted new hosts, a new studio layout and audience, and a new feel, prompted by Jeremy Clarkson’ punchy departure from the series. This first episode was a major reboot of the franchise loved in over 100 countries.
The show starts with Chris Evans, a new face if you’re outside the UK, whispering, “Welcome to Top Gear, with our all new, improved audience.” After a generic opening title sequence, Matt LeBlanc is introduced with the same type of fanfare you’d see in an old Star-In-Reasonably-Priced-Car segment. People clapped, cheered, hooted and hollered. LeBlanc, with a smirk on his face, said “You’re too kind, you’re too kind” like an aging Sinatra doing a charity gig at a diner in New Jersey.
Evans then made a classy jab at Jeremy Clarkson in an off-hand, maybe planted catering joke, saying “We don’t talk about catering on this show anymore,” and the first pre-recorded film started—Evans’ review of the Dodge Viper ACR.
That’s when things started going downhill.
For what it’s worth, Chris Evans looked very natural in studio. He interacted with the audience well, his cadence was on point, and he kept you interested in the subject matter. Simply put, he relayed information well.
That seemed to break down a bit when he entered a car and had to drive while talking; the result being a segment where he shouted at the top of his lungs to denote the Viper’s awesome road-handling abilities. He reused the beaten-to-death cliché of “race car for the street” and rattled off a bunch of stats known to anyone with enough curiosity to do a five second Google search.
However, what was notably absent from this film was an actual opinion of the car. It seems as if Evans was so busy reciting a Dodge press release that he forgot to review the damn thing, which was an indicator of the rest of the episode’s weird styling direction.
The segment morphed into a challenge, where a Corvette Z06 piloted by Sabine Schmitz would engage in a cat-and-mouse dogfight with Evans’ Viper. Both cars were equipped with “laser guns” and both cars had trained fighter pilots in their respective passenger’s seats.
Barring Schmitz’s borderline cringe-worthy Top Gun references and shouting “He’s on our tail!” about nine dozen times throughout the segment, I wish they’d actually featured her immense talents more and have her give her thoughts on the car, seeing as she’s an actual race car driver and can present worth a damn while driving the piss out of supercars without missing a beat.
The audience got the faintest glimmer of hope when she called the Z06 a “piece of shit”, with “awful” suspension that is “like a Ferrari.” That was a hot take that was not only unexpected, but sorely missed, as it’s what made old Top Gear great—the ability to crap on a car that many highly regard and back it up with snarky yet substantive argument.
As I imagined the audience leaned inwards and though “What did you mean by that, Sabine? Tell me more,” the segment ended, with Sabine losing a track battle with to a radio host, after which her fighter pilot passenger got carsick and wanted to puke. That was her only appearance in the episode.
Back to the studio.
While I did mention that Evans was particularly good in the studio segments, it seems as if LeBlanc, by contrast, was one turkey sandwich away from falling asleep. His humorless lines had no semblance of timing, his delivery was monotone and carried a snarky tinge of “They asked me to be here, so I’m here,” a fact he points out twice throughout the episode’s duration.
After a track lap of the ACR by The Stig, came what was undoubtedly the worst segment in the episode. LeBlanc and Evans would have a US vs. UK showdown, featuring custom-made Reliant 3-wheelers that they would drive from London to Blackpool. On the highway.
Quick aside: the Reliant Robin segment on old Top Gear with Jeremy Clarkson, faked as it may have been, was one of the funniest segments I had ever seen on television. Seeing the oddly shaped three wheeled car flip time after time with a tall, aging journalist in the driver’s seat was a goddamn treat.
The timing, the sense of nonchalant calamity, and scripted bits came together into something that was almost perfect in execution. It’s something I watch to this day as a litmus test of my sense of humor, as I can still chuckle even though I know every punchline by heart.
The car sucked, but the segment was made by the incredible ability of the presenter to convey and successfully downplay his particular trials and tribulations - all of which was notably absent in the LeBlanc/Evans segment.
In the new Top Gear, the presenters were traveling to Blackpool because who cares. After all, that was what it said in the script, so why have any sense of purpose? The show masked it as “The producers told us to...” and then embarked on a road trip with crappy cars in the rain.
LeBlanc’s car broke down shortly into the run and he elected to tow it to Blackpool, riding in the bed of the hired truck. At no point was there a concept of friendly competition or “always leave a man behind” that made challenges on old Top Gear so interesting. The segment was comprised of LeBlanc getting directions from Evans, and them coming into Blackpool together, as a team. Evans even helped get LeBlanc’s car started with a love tap. D’aww.
At one point, three quarters into the film, LeBlanc’s voice-over said “Morale had hit rock bottom.” Keep in mind, this wasn’t in regards to the presenters crossing impossibly harsh deserts or digging cars out of stinky mud ruts for hours. This was in in reference to driving two cars from one British city to another via a goddamn highway. They get to Blackpool under an archway that says “Welcome To LeBlancpool” and the film ends.
Evans then does a twist on the old series’ Star In A Reasonably Priced Car, replacing the car with an expensive Rally car, and featuring two guests, the inseparable duo of Gordon Ramsay and Jesse Eisenberg. This part of the show, for me at least, did not change, as I skipped this just as fast as I would’ve with any Top Gears of old. Apparently there may have also been a thinly veiled Ferrari PR stunt hidden in that segment.
LeBlanc then introduced his first standalone film, where he aggressively drove an Ariel Nomad around Moroccan dry lakebeds and tried not to get photographed by paparazzi. Because he’s a celebrity, in case you forgot.
If this concept sounds familiar to you, it should. Not only is it strikingly similar to challenges presented multiple times in both Top Gear U.S. and UK variants, but it’s almost identical to the challenge presented in the first film between Evans and Schmitz. It’s one thing to recycle old concepts, but another to repeat the same concept twice in the same damn show.
It’s also a bit funny to concoct a challenge about paparazzi trying to get a clean shot of LeBlanc, with the show’s cameras getting nothing but clean shots of him. Obviously it’s a scripted bit, but when the concept falls apart at the idea phase, it might not be worth it go to ahead with it on a multi-million dollar production.
Having said that, LeBlanc is damn good at driving and presenting, a stark and welcome contrast to his disinterested and arguably frightened tone in the studio segments, and a complete departure from Evans’ reading of ad copy in his standalone film. It was all qualitative, from a unique perspective, with LeBlanc offering personal anecdotes and expertly-placed quick-witted quips.
For me, it helped to flesh out his character and persona for films to come. He was no longer a humorless stump with the delivery of Dr. Drake Ramoray, but his own brand of automotive enthusiasm. There was hope for him (and the show as a whole) yet.
After another studio segment, a second part of the the Evans/LeBlanc film begins, featuring a speed test of a Series 1 Land Rover and Willys Jeep in the rain. This was immediately followed by a drag race (“drag” being used in more than one sense) and a towing challenge, with the two trucks towing the previously used broken Reliant three wheelers up muddy hills, to plant a flag, or something.
The issue with this chunk of video was a distinct lack of urgency. It wasn’t an epic calamity, it didn’t convey a sense of catastrophe and purpose, it was forced inconvenience and over-the-top presenting that didn’t translate well into a coherent product. With two presenters, the age-old trope is straight man, funny man, where both play off each other’s traits to make a contrasting story arc.
What it felt like was both presenters were straight men reading lines that they thought funny men would say; lines were blurted out with fervor that they hoped would make sense in the final edit. They didn’t.
There was no semblance of authentic desperation like we’ve seen in older episodes of Top Gear, and the entire thing ended with a handshake in studio, with a hearty ‘attaboy attitude. The most entertaining part of the segment was, after the film was over, LeBlanc uttering of “And on that bombshell,” with Evans stopping him halfway, screaming “No! We’re not doing that!”
Evans then rattles off the challenges, reviews, and celebrities featured next week, and the show ended. Woof.
Here are my takeaways from the first in a series of shows that reboots a beloved franchise: There’s a lot of work to go, and I’m not sure they can get there with the current architecture. The filming isn’t as stylized as it once was, but it’s above and beyond the best part of the series. It’s still expertly done to keep the audience’s attention. The issue for me is that the presenters are too busy with the task of making a show they think people will like to let their authentic emotion shine through to have people actually like them.
Both LeBlanc and Evans seemed like they weren’t fully invested in Top Gear; they acted like this was a part-time gig that didn’t deserve their full attention, going out of their way to make fun of old Top Gear without replacing it with something of equal substance.
For example, if you grew up with the N64 platforming game Banjo-Kazooie/Tooie and remember it fondly, you’ll recall how the beloved franchise was stopped in its tracks and converted into some weird spin-off that did its best to crap on the old format that people loved. Consequently, any hope of a true successor was skewered, until the original creators took it upon themselves to make a game that featured all the elements that people originally loved, but sporting a different name.
And that’s exactly what’s going with Top Gear.
In this inaugural episode, the presenters forced jokes and chemistry like a constipated chihuahua, but only time will tell if they get better at crafting a formula that works for them. One thing is clear - taking pot shots at old Top Gear and its presenters, when they’re the ones largely responsible for growing the brand in the first place, is probably not a great idea for viewer retention.
Having said that, the presenter that they’d need to retain the public craving old-style Top Gear may already be on the team. Chris Harris, love him or loathe him, has made a name for himself by doing exactly what we so adored about the outgoing bunch. He’s a stellar presenter and although he is included in the roster, it’s a shame that they placed him in the DVD extras after-show known as Extra Gear, where audience enthusiasm and viewership has undoubtedly dropped off significantly after the conclusion of the main show. Hell, Evans didn’t even mention Extra Gear. That alone showed how high of a priority it was to the producers.
Obviously no show is perfect, and even old Top Gear had some boring episodes so I’ll reserve judgment for now, but if this episode is any indicator of what’s in store for fans like me, then I’ll be the first to say:
May Top Gear rest in peace, long live The Grand Tour.