Never has the relaunch of a TV show been met with such anticipation and animosity. But Top Gear isn’t an ordinary TV show; it’s a worldwide phenomenon with a global audience of 350 million. And last night gave us our first look at Top Gear AC (after Clarkson) fronted by new hosts Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc. No pressure then.
I went in with an open mind. After all, Clarkson, Hammond and May are now doing their own thing on Amazon in what’s expected to be old Top Gear in all but name, so there’s surely no reason why we can’t have two rival car shows. As much as I loved Top Gear during its 14 year run, even I’ll admit the show had become stale and was in need of a refresh. I really wanted to like new Top Gear.
But as I sat nervously watching the opening credits, something immediately seemed wrong. What I was watching was a cringe-worthy Top Gear parody.
Relaunching a show is never easy, especially with a whole new presenter line-up. Like a band carrying on after losing their original members that brought them to fame, Top Gear’s new hosts have surely been feeling the pressure to fill the void – particularly Chris Evans, who has suffered a relentless, and somewhat undeserved, witch-hunt in the British press.
The fact is, Clarkson, Hammond and May are such a beloved trio that most people can’t imagine Top Gear surviving without them. They did, after all, turn Top Gear into an unprecedented success. And yet it’s easy to forget that the show existed before they were at the helm. It's also easy to forget that there’s a reason why Top Gear’s audience plummeted when Clarkson originally left the show, which lead to the show’s demise before it relaunched in 2002 and became an unstoppable success. Without their unique personalities (let's face it, the days when people used to tune in to Top Gear for actual car advice are long gone) driving the show, the future of Top Gear looked doubtful.
The situation put the BBC in an impossible position: with Clarkson, Hammond and May migrating to Amazon to launch their own car show, recently revealed to be named The Grand Tour after months of speculation, should Top Gear continue in the same direction or completely reinvent itself? Top Gear is reportedly worth £50 million in earnings for the BBC, so cancelling it was never going to be an option. And yet fan reaction to the new presenter line-up has been so heated, new Top Gear was doomed before it even aired. From the BBC’s perspective, they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
The BBC are insisting that the new series is a reboot, but Top Gear has barely changed at all in the first episode, providing the usual mix of fast cars, exotic locations and automotive challenges. If anything, it’s trying too hard to be like its former self. They had the opportunity to put a new spin on the formula but instead mostly played it safe.
Case in point: Evans needs to stop impersonating Clarkson so blatently. From the embarrassing intro and his imitation of Clarkson’s trademark dramatic pauses, to the way he incessantly shouted every single line which quickly became grating as he pranced around the studio like a hyperactive child crying for attention, Evans was trying way, way too hard to act and sound like Clarkson.
He needs to relax and tone it down if the show is to be successful and survive on its own merit. Otherwise he could do with a volume button – he was so loud you could hear his voice echo in the studio. You can imagine him being the sort of person who drains the life out of you with their excessive enthusiasm if you hang out with them too long.
Unsurprisingly there were plenty of not-so-subtle stabs at old Top Gear: the remark about getting new catering was predictable, but bragging how they “got custody” over the Stig was cringe-worthy and disrespectful to fans, especially since Clarkson came up with the original concept.
Like Clarkson, Evans has a polarising personality so they at least have that in common. In fairness, he does have a huge passion for cars as evidenced by the fleet of Ferraris in his personal collection. He’s been at the centre of controversy throughout his TV and radio career too, so you can see why he was chosen to front Top Gear as Clarkson’s replacement.
Former Friends star Matt LeBlanc, on the other hand, was a surprising choice when the line-up was announced. He was seemingly enlisted as an attempt to appeal to American audiences, and while he’s perfectly likable, presenting doesn’t appear to come naturally to him; particularly in the studio segments where he sounded bored and monotone – he didn’t’ seem very happy to be there, to put it bluntly. Perhaps it’s just his laid-back persona clashing with egotistical Evans. It made for an odd pairing: any chemistry they had felt forced. Rumour has it they don’t get on, but time will tell if they can gel.
LeBlanc looked like a lost kid on his first day at school in the studio compared to the exciteable Evans, but seemed much more natural in the pre-recorded films – probably because he was being himself and wasn’t trying to be a carbon copy of Clarkson, Hammond or May. Evans seemed stilted in the films by comparison. Let’s not forget, though, that LeBlanc is an actor, not a presenter, unlike Evans who has decades of experience with TV and radio presenting.
There were also too many gags about LeBlanc being oblivious to places in Britain. You’re American Matt, we get it.
It wasn’t all bad, however. At least Top Gear hasn’t lost its slick production values. The cinematography of the two main films was outstanding – Top Gear is still one of the best looking shows on TV. The opening review and subsequent duel between the AC Viper and Chevrolet Corvette Z06 avoiding missile lock at the Nevada desert was superbly shot and fun to watch, but we’ve seen very similar ideas done before in the show. This also acted as a fitting introduction to Sabine who showcased her driving prowess, even managing to reduce an experienced fighter pilot to a vomiting wreck.
LeBlanc’s review of the brutal Ariel Nomad off-roader in Morocco was entertaining at first (at least he can talk and drive), but it soon followed the same pattern of the Viper film as they played on LeBlanc’s celebrity status by having him evade pursuing paparazzi in all-manner of vehicles. Featuring two films with near-identical set ups over the course of a series is one thing, but placing them in the same episode was too much.
Elsewhere, there have been a few changes to the format. The studio has been tweaked, with big screens and crowds overlooking the studio on balconies, but the studio has lost its intimacy as a result. Case in point: there’s now a giant entrance door for guests to walk through, complete with flashing lights and the Jessica theme blaring. It's like something out of a corny game show from the ‘90s. I thought I had accidentally tuned in to a re-run of Fun House.
Meanwhile the news was inexplicably axed (it’s been reserved for the online-only after-show Extra Gear hosted by co-presenters Rory Reid and Chris Harris, strangely, who didn’t even feature in the first episode – it’s well worth a watch and arguably more grounded than the main show) and the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car (traditionally the most skippable segment of the show) is now Star in a Rallycross Car, featuring a revamped circuit incorporating new off-road sections, jumps and water splashes.
This made the laps slightly more exciting to watch, but the interview with Gordon Ramsey and Jesse Eisenberg (possibly the most unlikely pairing in the history of television) could have done without Evans forcing audience participation into voting on whose first car was better which took up too much time. Hopefully this won’t be a recurring theme in every interview. Having two guests also made the interview unfocused and didn’t allow their personalities to shine. You may remember a previous series of Top Gear experimented with having two guests in each episode but it didn’t work, so they quickly reverted back to just one guest.
Changing the Reasonably Priced Car into a Rallycross car also undermines the original point of the segment; i.e. putting celebrities in everyday crummy cars for amusement which used to be about the only relatable part of the show, but at least it’s had a much needed rethink for the first time in 14 years, and the new sections demand some driving skill. Plus at least the interview stayed on the subject of cars and kept shameless plugs to a minimum which was refreshing.
Ironically, what was often the highlight of Top Gear was the absolute low point of the first episode. I’m talking of course about the show's famous challenges – in this case a bizarre road trip to Blackpool in convertible Reliant Rialto’s which culminated in a UK versus US face-off in vintage 4X4s. Yes, you guessed it: one of their cars kept breaking down.
Without Clarkson, Hammond and May’s natural, inimitable chemistry, the motorway trip with Evans and LeBlanc exchanging half-hearted one-liners was decidedly dull and pointless. By the time they switched to the 4X4s with the aid of an Olympic athlete and American strongman, I had zoned out. The challenge lacked any kind of tension, humour or point. This was a Top Gear challenge purely for the sake of it.
The end shot of the team struggling up a hill in their tired 4X4s perfectly sums up the first episode of new Top Gear. While it’s still too early to write it off after one episode (remember, it took several years before old Top Gear hit its stride) and we have yet to see co-presenters Chris Harris, Rory Reid and Eddie Jordan in their respective roles, judging from the brutal backlash Top Gear's reboot has already received it’s going to be an uphill battle to win over Top Gear’s loyal fanbase.
There’s still time for future episodes to salvage new Top Gear's stalled start and you get the feeling that nerves understandably got the better of the presenters, but this opening episode was an inferior imitation of vintage Top Gear.