Succeeding Jeremy Clarkson as the host of Top Gear was always going to be an impossible mission, and it turned out that BBC radio DJ Chris Evans was no Ethan Hunt. After just one season of what was supposed to be a three-year contract, Evans today resigned from his position, saying "I feel like my standing aside is the single best thing I can now do to help the cause." And you know what? He’s absolutely right.
My expectations from a Clarkson-less (and Hammond-less and May-less) Top Gear were so low that I didn’t go to the trouble of watching the new series, but I gave it a chance today in the wake of the Chris Evans news. My immediate observations: (a) the stellar Top Gear production quality is still breathtaking, but (b) Chris Evans was not at all the right personality to lead the show, and yet (c) this season of Top Gear is a totally palatable and enjoyable watch when you know he’s leaving the show.
That may be a harsh thing to say, given Evans’ obvious and earnest desire to do well, but his eagerness is part of what made the Top Gear audience reject him. He was so keen to recreate the Clarkson magic that he ended up sounding inauthentic, forcing the bravado and machismo that came naturally to his predecessor.
Trying to recreate Clarkson's particular brand of caveman charisma was a mistake
Top Gear is one of those iconic shows that I and a legion of other not-so-young-anymore men grew up with in the UK. Everything else in our lives might have changed, but there was always Jeremy Clarkson burning rubber on the screen, making xenophobic jokes about the French, and playing unfunny practical jokes on his co-presenters. Basically, he was the uncle whose sense of humor you knew was offensive, but who still made you laugh. Plus he knew his subject matter and narrated authoritatively and imperiously. Chris Evans fell desperately short on all of these fronts. He lacked Clarkson’s finely crafted mix of cynicism and panache, and came across more as one of us wide-eyed kids and not as the expert guide into the world of unattainable cars.
It might have been alright for Evans to be crazy in his own way, but like a Marco Rubio trying to act grown-up and presidential, the BBC presenter tried to recreate the particular Clarkson brand of loudmouth charisma, which backfired predictably. Jeremy Clarkson was an ugly, shouty, offensive brute behind the wheel, but we’d grown accustomed to him in the same way that we grew to love the avuncular Des Lynam presenting English Premier League highlights on Match of the Day.
The good news now is that any annoyance or irritation you might have felt toward Evans’ performance in Top Gear is forgivable or at least ignorable. His time was, and now it’s passed — he shall sully the Top Gear brand no longer. For me, that makes it easy to enjoy the series that was produced with Evans in the lead. I can refocus my attention on the other presenters like Matt LeBlanc, who is successfully pulling off the charming foreigner role that so many British TV hosts have succeeded with in the US. Or there’s Chris Harris, one of the supposedly junior hosts, who’s won fans over with his encyclopaedic knowledge and profound, geeky love of cars.
For its next season, Top Gear will likely seek out a new primary host, and I have high hopes that that person will be in a much better position to succeed than Chris Evans ever was. The first lesson learned, hopefully, will be that trying to emulate the three amigos of Clarkson, May, and Hammond was a bad idea. LeBlanc and Evans never developed the same sort of on-screen chemistry as their predecessors and there’s frankly no compulsion to return to the old level of sophomoric humor either. Why not do something entirely new and unique? Hell, why not have a female lead and draw a definite line under the whole Clarkson era?
Top Gear is still the best at turning cars into kinetic art pieces
More than anything, though, I remain a Top Gear fan because of all the astonishing work done by the people behind the scenes: the videographers, audio engineers, and whatever creative geniuses are responsible for scripting together every segment. You could have Jar Jar Binks behind the wheel and the BBC would still make a car review look and feel like a spectacle. These people are documenting car history in the most beautiful, artistic, and captivating manner possible, and I commend them for it wholeheartedly.
Jeremy Clarkson thought himself bigger than Top Gear, and the (seemingly) inevitable downfall of his successor would support the idea that he was right — factually if not morally. But I foresee much better things ahead for Top Gear after this one season of adaptation. The core product of the show — kinetic automotive art — retains its outstanding quality, and all that needs to be added now is just a fresh face to steer the ship. Formula 1 driver Jenson Button has even provided the blueprint for that next presenter: he made a brief but memorable cameo in episode two this season, displaying the genuine driving enthusiasm, seasoned with a measure of grinning recklessness, that made Top Gear the beloved show it has been for so long.