In moments of downtime or in anticipation of a big debut, the Verge Transportation Slack room transforms into a fan forum of sorts, where passionate Top Gear fans come to square off. With the 24th season of the show airing at 8PM ET on BBC America, the Verge staff answers the question: Is the new Top Gear worth watching?
Jordan: The Clarkson / Hammond / May Top Gear was a fun show with three people having a good time, and the backdrop just happened to be about cars. This new one is close. Top Gear wasn't a car show under Clarkson for years — it's about three friends. That's why Chris Evans didn't work, ‘cause he was a one-man band. Chemistry is hard.
There are a lot of TV shows and movies that focus around one or a group of characters. And it’s extraordinarily difficult to just replace them and still have something that works.
This new show doesn't have to be Clarkson-era Top Gear (and it shouldn't!). But it can have that car backdrop, reworked for new hosts. But at its heart, it needs to be three friends joking around and giving each other a hard time. That's the soul of that show. In this first episode, LeBlanc and Harris are great together. Truly. And Rory Reid is pretty good, too. We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out, but I think it was a good first effort at a reboot.
James: So yesterday afternoon, I finally sat down and watched the first episode of the new series of Top Gear, and rewatched the first and second episode of The Grand Tour.
Honestly, I was a little stunned. I found the Top Gear studio segments so uncomfortable to watch. The banter was painful; so scripted and forced. To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with the new presenters, they’re just... well they’re just not Clarkson, May, and Hammond. Now that in itself wouldn’t be a problem if they weren't trying to be Clarkson, May, and Hammond. But they don’t have any choice in the matter: the format of the show is still pretty much the old Top Gear and the old Top Gear is Clarkson, May, and Hammond. Having the same kinds of challenges, a celeb driving a lap of the track, etcetera, only forces the comparison to the former and now very famous hosts. The BBC should have ditched the format entirely and come up with something new.
Andrew: Interesting. I really dug the new trio. I tried to get into the rebooted season last year, and just sort of bounced off of it. The chemistry between Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc just wasn’t there, and I was pretty happy to see that Evans left the show after only a season.
What struck me the most is how comfortable the new lineup of hosts — Matt LeBlanc, Chris Harris, and Rory Reid — seemed with one another. It felt like they were having fun, although it did feel a bit stilted. I think that’s to be expected, though: it’s the first episode right out of the gate for the three, and if you look back at some of those earlier Top Gear seasons with Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, it took them a couple of seasons to really get into a rhythm.
James: Now in full disclosure, I didn’t watch the last season of the new Top Gear. I could plausibly list “not ever having to watch Chris Evans ever again” as one of the reasons I emigrated to the US over 10 years ago. So I have no way of comparing this new episode to the last series which by all accounts was a dumpster fire. But there’s no way I can’t compare it to the Top Gear I knew used to love.
I say used to because I found the later seasons to be almost a pastiche of themselves. It was only one or two of the specials (racist asides from Clarkson notwithstanding) I thought were worth watching. But looking further back on episodes such as the one where the trio tried to destroy a Toyota Hilux, or they tried to resurface a road in a day, or they built a snow plough out of an old combine harvester, those episodes were undeniably great TV. It was no fluke that Top Gear became the BBC’s most successful show ever.
Jordan: So I'd say watch this one and maybe a few more. I think as a writer Clarkson is absolutely brilliant and impossible to replace. But they don't need to replace him or replicate what those three had. They just need to do their own thing in the same basic framework. And I think they've got a good start here.
James: I’m willing to bet that this new season of Top Gear is not going to reclaim that former glory. Matt LeBlanc and Matt Harris are decent presenters (especially Harris when he’s driving), and I think that Rory Reid brings a genuine and much needed charm to the show. But I still think that all three are fighting a format that simply doesn’t work for them. It’s as though they’re being forced to wear suits that were tailored to fit someone else.
And if the first two episodes I’ve seen are anything to go by, I think that the same can be said of The Grand Tour. This new format doesn’t fit Clarkson, May, and Hammond any better than the new Top Gear format fits LeBlanc, Harris, and Reid. The Grand Tour is trying too hard to create Top Gear without it being Top Gear. That’s why the driving sections are so much better than the studio sections. Drifting a car round a track isn’t a format; it simply is what it is and we can enjoy it as such.
Andrew: When Clarkson, Hammond, and May jumped over to Amazon last year, I was struck at how closely The Grand Tour lined up with the format that they’d established with Top Gear. It’s not quite the same, but it’s pretty close. My take with both new seasons is that it’s a durable format: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That said, I can see them changing with time as they try out new ideas. I do hope that this new Top Gear lineup can move on from this starting point and make the show stand on its own merits and the strengths of the new presenters.
What I’m interested in is seeing how well Top Gear and The Grand Tour do against one another. Is there room for two really similar car shows? It seems like The Grand Tour captured everything that I loved about the original Top Gear, and left the rebooted version in the dust.
Jordan: I think there’s absolutely room for more than one show, if for nothing else than both Top Gear and The Grand Tour have absolutely gorgeous videography and I love looking at cars. For both shows, though, I’m take-it-or-leave-it on the studio segments. Just show me the cars — and the friends.
Andrew: The big question here is: is Top Gear still worth watching with this new lineup? I think so. I had a lot of fun watching this new lineup, but most of all, I liked the road trip out to Kazakhstan. Their random challenges and competition with one another felt very much like one of the episodes when Top Gear was good under Clarkson’s watch, and while it isn’t perfect, I think it’s a solid starting place for them to take it. It’ll either change and become its own thing, or it’ll stay roughly the same. Either way, I enjoyed it.
James: I think it’s run its course. Watching both Top Gear and The Grand Tour yesterday was rather like listening to some of my favorite albums from the 2007 and realizing that they haven’t aged well. It doesn’t mean they weren’t great albums back then; it’s just they’re a little dated now. I honestly think the whole “bunch of guys being dickheads and arguing about cars” format is just a little tired in 2017. I’ll remember Top Gear fondly for what it was back in the day and move on. Bareham out.
Jordan: I don’t know if it’s fair to declare Top Gear dead based on one episode. They certainly have things to work on, but as the first show out of the gate for LeBlanc / Harris / Reid, I think it’s a great effort.
I’ll admit that I’m more excited for seasons two and three of The Grand Tour than I am for more of this generation of Top Gear — but I’ll still watch both of ‘em. Of course, there are some people that won’t like either one, or boycott The Grand Tour because they don’t like Clarkson. That’s okay. I still like guys being dickheads and arguing about cars. Both shows are basically my life (guys being dickheads and arguing about cars, anyway), only with way better camerawork and backdrops.