Ever since I heard Jeremy Clarkson was sacked from Top Gear and that radio DJ and self-confessed rev-head Chris Evans was replacing him, it’s been like a dream for me. Not the kind where you would wake up wishing it hadn’t ended, but rather the kind where you’re constantly asking yourself “Is this really happening?”.
That uncertainty has unfortunately come to an end on Monday night when the ‘new’ Top Gear premiered its 23rd series on the BBC.
I must admit – and my friends will hate me for this – that I was actually looking forward to seeing what Evans and co. would bring to the show. With the addition of ‘Gearhead’ Matt LeBlanc, the ‘Queen of the Nürburgring’ Sabine Schmitz, ‘that guy from Formula 1’ Eddie Jordan, regular old Stig and two relatively unknown other blokes, we had a bulging line-up of people who had been on the show and had done well.
And Eddie Jordan.
The first episode, however, only featured Evans and Joey LeBlanc, with Schmitz making a brief appearance in what was ostensibly a car review.
From the get-go you could feel something was off.
The old studio was too tidy for the show you were used to, the jokes are being told in the same manner by a very different person. But then you remember that this is a new show.
Or is it? As the 23rd series of Top Gear, that doesn’t sound very new.
The first segment was a familiar power test of the Dodge Viper ACR, an improved version of its predecessor, although this time blessed with downforce. The test was carried out in an Air Force base in America rather than the traditional Dunsfold Aerodrome. Evans was immediately lacking in car insight and started listing numbers and facts about the ACR, eventually explaining to a car-oriented audience – and probably himself – how downforce works.
Oh, and he was irked by the position of the gear knob that required you to stay focused while driving.
Evans then compared it with the competition in the form of a Corvette Z06 and to do that, a classic Top Gear-esque race ensued with guns and fighter pilots riding shotgun and Sabine Schmitz drove the Z06 so quickly that she made her pilot passenger vomit!
The ACR was driven around by The Stig and the lap-time was posted on the old Power Lap board that apparently had less cars and all the times re-written…
Where is the old ‘Koeniggsgsgggsgsgeeggsgsegs CCX with Top Gear rear wing’ plate?
The episode continued with a celebration of the new show’s apparent multiculturalism of having an American presenter by holding a race between America and Britain from London to Blackpool in two British-made Reliant Robins, with the only difference being that each car was resplendent with either the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes.
America did most of the race on top of a flatbed because LeBlanc’s Reliant (which he didn’t pick and hadn’t known about until he was introduced to it in front of the BBC building) had broken down many times, the pair had a Top Gear-esque banter and the race was finished. That didn’t seem challenging enough and the segment was later picked up with a set of challenges, between a Willys Jeep and a Land Rover Mk1, a few random challenges later, the classic off-roaders were tugging their respective Reliants up a muddy hill with the help of some people, Britain cheating its way to victory.
LeBlanc then did a review of the Ariel Nomad, an off-road relative of the minimalist Ariel Atom, and for the first time in the episode I was actually enjoying watching it. The talking was interesting and the scripting of the fictional events during the review actually made a point. Although LeBlanc was funny, I realized that I was enjoying the car much more I was enjoying watching a blunt description of what I was seeing. And in between these three segments was the guest segment, which summed it all up.
The ‘Star in a Rallycross Car’ segment was the epitome of it all. It put a regular non-racing driver celebrity behind the wheel on a rallycross track made of the old test track and some of the grassy bits within it.
At first glance it sounds like a good idea, but it kind of summed up why I was feeling negative throughout the episode. It’s a departure from the highly popular ‘Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car’, but not be enough to give the Evans-era show its own distinct stamp.
Instead Top Gear is caught in this limbo, partly reinventing the wheel by keeping some good bits, unnecessarily tinkering with others while stripping out all the controversial bits. The end result is a show that has lost sight of its focus: the auto industry.
The show keeps the old dramatized, action film mini-movies of motorcycles jumping on top of cars, slow-motion footage of dust being kicked up and words like missile lock and drift. What it drops is the actual relevance of this colour, sound and movement to the actual cars.
Gone is the funny and occasionally controversial ‘News’ segment where the former presenters would usually exchange insults and racial slurs while occasionally talking about some auto news for a bit. They would interact with the studio audience, TV viewers and politicians, all the while addressing real car issues and coming in contact with the market. The News was my favorite part of the whole show because it was Top Gear at its most real and not just an over-glorified TV commercial that caught people’s eyes with flames and tyre smoke. Evans seems to be attracted only to the latter two.
You see, it’s easy to forget that Chris Evans is a radio DJ while Jeremy Clarkson was an automotive journalist. Is this at the heart of why their versions of Top Gear differ?
Controversial and occasionally appalling as he was, Clarkson was crucially a creative automotive journalist who found new ways of doing the same old tests to review the same pivotal features of any car while actually making people want to watch them. Who else would test the size of a boot by its ability to accommodate the body of a dead Albanian mobster or assess whether a car can be truly waterproof by turning it into a boat?
Yes, there was the occasional nonsense and blowing up of caravans but the original crew earned that right by being relevant and frankly, if you’ve ever driven behind a caravan, you wouldn’t blame them.
There’s a big elephant in the room: Chris Evans. Is he likeable? Does he seem to understand cars? Does he know people enough to interact with his audience?
It only takes a look at the audience clapping against their will to answer your questions. They didn’t seem to enjoy their time, and neither did I. The guests certainly didn’t understand what was going on and no real conversation was taking place between them and the presenter.
While LeBlanc wasn’t all that bad, Evans doesn’t seem to know anything about driving a car. Either that’s a bad thing or it is just what an apologetic BBC wanted to replace Clarkson with: an overgrown, not-so-adorable version of the kid in Jerry Maguire. One thing is for sure, though: Evans reviewing a car doesn’t say the least bit about the true qualities of a car, so there goes that.
Top Gear as we knew it was a proud British motoring show. Whether it showed pride in the Aston Martin DBS or pride in how the Morris Marina was a step on the road to ruin, the show was about everything British. While there is nothing wrong with bringing an American presenter, the race that ended with Britain cheating to victory was either making fun of Clarkson’s pride or just missing it completely.
The new Top Gear doesn’t remember why it is a show about cars; it doesn’t even know whether it wants to be a new version of Top Gear.
The series is serialized 23 and the presenters themselves acknowledge all the heritage of Jeremy Clarkson by making it clear they won’t end with ‘And on that bombshell’ and Evans’ making fun of Clarkson’s old intro. It didn’t abandon the old Power Lap times, but it felt the need to write them again. My toys!
This is a show that has failed to impress on its first impression. It’s a show that wanted to go halfway – Evans apparently wanted to halve the studio recording time – and by all accounts that measure was in the bleeding of its TV audience. A 4.4 million nationwide viewership, compared to the average 7 million the old show did on its last season, perhaps says it all. Some might argue that Series 1 pilot had much less viewers but then again, Top Gear was a lot less known and had barely any funding.
So will I watch any more Top Gear?
Yes, I will and I’ll even try to give it the benefit of the doubt even though things are looking quite bleak for the BBC reincarnation. And to be honest, it’s put a dent in my anticipation of Amazon’s reincarnation with Clarkson, May and Hammond: The Grand Tour.
Evans’ highly defensive posturing on Twitter after the episode went to air, coupled with stories that he ranted at the studio audience clearly clapping and wooping on demand all show that the first episode simply didn’t work.
It’s for one simple reason: Clarkson was a parody of himself and he knew that, and this reflected in Top Gear which he turned into a parody of the regular car community.
The new Top Gear is simply a parody of the old Top Gear.
Images via BBC and Metro