Top Gear: still stuck in first gear?

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Last week was premature to cast judgement on Top Gear’s relaunch. Clarkson, Hammond and May’s departure from the show, following that now infamous catering-related ‘fracas’ was always going to result initially in a social media storm that left Top Gear’s new hosts for dust.

Yet, though Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc’s ‘chemistry’ was perhaps lampooned to gratuitous levels, there was more than a basis of truth in the scathing critiques the twitter echo-chamber was emitting. Some of the dialogue in that first episode was painfully, painfully forced (a fact not helped by reports that canned laughter was employed to boost the ‘atmosphere’ in the Surrey hanger where Top Gear is shot) and, two weeks in, it is apparent that the programme, once the BBC’s greatest success story, has a task on its hands tougher than reinventing the wheel.

So what did you miss by being one of 1.5 million people who passed on a second lap of the motoring show? On the surface, not much. In a segment on the McLaren 675LT, Evans continued his cringe-inducing Clarkson tribute act. ‘Tonight…I get even more shouty!’ he had warned in the introductory voiceover and it is becoming increasingly clear that rather than being the Dad who realises he’s old, not that cool and is thus actually quite cool, Evans will unashamedly preach to our childish instincts with little tact. Sure Clarkson did too, but he didn’t have to lean on non-car-related props for his mediocre puns. Evans might not have employed staff from his local Indian curry house like last week, instead he was wheeled out on a hospital bed.

Such superfluous antics, ones somewhat reminiscent of those inserted in the US version of The Office, were in stark contrast to those composed by Clarkson and Co. who, at least really understood car culture and used that as the vehicle (cough) to make their gags. Rather ironically, thus far, only when former Friends star Le Blanc has been unleashed from the scripted confines of the studio have either of Top Gear’s now two main presenters appeared genuine and taken up the ‘Clarksonsy’ mantle of someone you would secretly enjoy inviting to a dinner party.

On the plus side, episode two showed that Top Gear’s photography has been elevated. This was most visibly on display during a film sequence showing the team winding their way up through the stunning Drakensberg Mountains. Naturally, their challenge was to reach Africa’s highest pub (expect next years’ Freshers to have all been there on their ‘Gap Yah’) and the various challenges performed were mostly quite fresh and enjoyable ‘Sunday-evening’ fair. The BBC has definitely invested in enough helicopter cameramen to ensure that ‘Flop Gear’ is not an occurrence.

However, for all the turbocharged tomfoolery, episode two highlighted how the only thing we know about the ‘new’ Top Gear is how little we know. As anyone who ever watched the old version knows, it wasn’t about cars. Certainly, for a more liberally-minded university audience, it was a place of escapism, where you let your guard down and revel in the travails that comprised the black-and white, less complicated world of three middle-aged men. Now though, with some presenters (Chris Harris and Rory Reid) completely unseen as yet and special guests (Jenson Button, Damian Lewis, Tinie Tempah, Seasick Steve and Sharleen Spiteri) accelerating into view left, right and centre the main presenting dynamic of Top Gear remains opaque.

Arguably, these new figures will energise the Clarkson era ‘three man’ that had become increasingly stale and rehashed over the years and, as such, it will be difficult to know when the ‘new’ Top Gear will hit its own top gear. If these episodes have told us anything it is that a particular sweet spot amenable to Clarkson devotees will not be hit with Evans in charge. The decision to change ‘The Star in the Reasonably Priced Car’ segment into one where the celebrity drives in a rally-cross Mini complete with gravel tracks and water obstacles is perhaps symptomatic of the decision to increase the number of hosts Top Gear has.

As James Corden has exploited on his ‘Carpool Karaoke’ segment on The Late Late Show in the US, cars can be a great leveller. The BBC, in perhaps an acknowledgement that they cannot recapture or nurture that relatable and witty banter that Clarkson and friends had, have decided to go bigger on the stunts and stars. The post-Clarkson era Top Gear might have the same chassis, but the show’s new engine is far more visible: for now, for worse, for later, who knows.

Photo Courtesy of Elliott Brown via Flickr.

 

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