As I hadn’t wanted to rush in and judge the show prematurely before it had been given time to find it’s feet, I’ve been putting off writing about the post-Clarkson reboot of Top Gear for a few weeks until now, four episodes in to the new era fronted by Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc.
The good news is that the production is as stylish as ever. Not being a huge petrolhead myself, a lot of the pleasure of watching Top Gear for me was in the top-notch photography, editing and music production values of the show, and in this respect the standard is as good as if not even better than previous seasons.
Viewed objectively, therefore, this new series is a solid attempt by Top Gear to pick itself up after former host Jeremy Clarkson’s explosive exit from the series in 2015 after reportedly punching a producer. The BBC had no choice but to not renew his contract and so Clarkson duly left, taking with him co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May and executive producer Andy Wilman to set-up a still-to-air rival show on Amazon Prime called The Grand Tour. That left the BBC with a big problem over what to do with the now-gutted Top Gear. After some deliberation, the keys to the project were handed over to long-time TV and radio host Chris Evans who selected former Friends star Matt LeBlanc as his co-host.
That should really have put the show in safe hands, but the ratings for the new series of Top Gear have been tanking. There are even rumours that the show will be cancelled after its latest run, or at the very least that Evans will not be invited back. So what’s gone wrong?
The basic mix of the show consisting of entertaining silly ‘challenges’ and more fact-based reviews and features has been retained. In fact, perhaps a little bit too much for its own good as it makes direct comparisons between the reboot and the classic Top Gear rather too easy – and not often in the new incarnation’s favour. Clarkson, Hammond and May always looked like they were three mates messing around and making things up as they went along, but of course, that wasn’t the case at all. The show was every bit as carefully scripted and directed as any other big name BBC show, it’s just that the cheerful camaraderie between the three hosts comprehensively covered that up.
The new show has no such good fortune. The new cast has been artificially selected and thrown together, and hasn’t yet had the opportunity to establish a natural rapport and chemistry. The interactions between Evans and LeBlanc feel awkward and stilted and are plainly scripted; and while LeBlanc’s background as an actor helps him deliver the lines with a droll sense of American wryness, it’s not helped Evans who seems bizarrely out of his comfort zone for most of the show. In particular he seems unable to stop shouting at everything and everyone, only finding his ‘indoor voice’ when it comes to interviewing that week’s star guests. As someone with a huge amount of broadcasting experience, it’s quite bizarre how amateur and misjudged Evans’ hosting has been in this context.
Things aren’t helped by some changes to the show’s format. In an effort not to reproduce the Clarkson-era’s fixed three-man line-up, the new Top Gear has only Evans and LeBlanc on screen every week but then draws from a larger pool consisting of former F1 team boss Eddie Jordan, German racing driver Sabine Schmitz, car reviewer Rory Reid and YouTube discovery Chris Harris, as well as long-time ‘tame racing driver’ the Stig.
In essence Evans and LeBlanc take care of the celebrity/entertainment side of things calling upon Jordan and Schmitz as and when needed, while Reid and Harris do solo features concentrating on the serious car reviewing stuff. But this lays bare the show’s attempt to balance the frivolous and the serious in a way that the old show never did: looking back at repeats of the Clarkson days it’s interesting to see how much they managed to shoe-horn fun into the serious stuff, and likewise factual information into the silly parts, so that it all blended seamlessly together. By comparison you can hear the ‘clunk’ of the gear change every time the reboot attempts to shift tone.
The early episodes of the 2016 run were also too weighted toward the ‘silly’. For me it’s only been since Reid and Harris have come on board that the series has rediscovered a little of its true sense of purpose. But the fact that they are not fully integrated into the show – any more than part-timers Jordan and Schmitz – actively prevents a sense of chemistry being established between the full presenting line-up. They look like a bunch of co-workers who are located in the same building but only run across each other at lunch time or during fire drills when they have to make polite conversation for ten minutes before going on their way.
If this rebooted version of Top Gear were a new show, none of this would matter nearly as much as it does. But the inevitable comparisons with the Clarkson, Hammond and May shows expose the flaws in uncomfortably high definition, and I presume it’s this that is resulting in the audience turning its back and walking away in droves. Which is a shame, as I personally still rate it and like it a lot, and enjoy watching a great deal. Maybe not as much as the old Top Gear, but then even before the Clarkson crisis we were saying that that the last run in 2015 was looking tired and unimaginative, proceeding too much according to formula while running out of genuinely new ideas.
Perhaps Top Gear has simply had its day, but I hope not. I’d miss it. (Well, actually I’d just keep watching the never-ending reruns on digital channel Dave, but you know what I mean.) Yes, the new show has to continue to bed in and certainly needs some tweaks: in particular, someone urgently needs to find the volume control on Chris Evans and turn it down. But there’s nothing here that’s so fundamentally broken that it can’t be fixed, and in Harris and Reid in particular it now has the seeds of what could be a genuinely new and brilliant era for the show.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Top Gear continues on BBC2 on Sundays at 8pm.