I remember the first time I watched an episode of Top Gear. It was the episode where the three guys were on a beach testing a Jaguar XKR, BMW 645i, and Porsche 911. It had all the things that made me fall in love with the show straight away; amazing cars, great scenery, and watching the hilarious banter between the presenters in defending their favoured cars. Who would’ve thought that three middle-aged men bickering about which car is best would become the global juggernaut that is Top Gear.
I remember sitting down in front of our television (it was a plasma just to give you an idea of how long ago it was) and watching in awe of how hilarious and enjoyable watching a show about some old white men driving around and shouting a lot was. I watched it with fresh eyes and a mouth glued to the floor. Of course I was about 10 or 11 but still, I knew from that moment on I’d be hooked.
Over the years I literally bought everything ‘Top Gear’ – magazines, DVDs, hell I even went to their live shows in Auckland. To bring the point home of how much of a Top Gear fanboy I am, I even drove to the buddha they boys visited during their race in Japan against a bullet train and a Nissan GT-R. I even climbed the 1000 or so stairs. And that’s something coming from someone who will take an elevator at every opportunity.
So when I watched the first episode of the Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc fronted Top Gear, I tried to with a fresh and open mind. Of course I wouldn’t be able to help myself but compare it with the Clarkson, Hammond, and May Top Gear but I had to at least give it a fair chance. I know some people out there would’ve already made their minds up before watching it.
Right from the get-go Evans seemed way too over excited. Perhaps it was nerves but it seemed liked he was trying to put on too much of a show. He looked like that kid in high school who tried too hard to fit in with the cool kids. It didn’t seem natural at all. Hopefully he’ll get more comfortable later on.
LeBlanc on the other hand was as cool, calm, and collected. He had the most to prove being the first non-UK presenter of Top Gear UK. I’ll admit, I had my doubts about LeBlanc on Top Gear. But his effortlessly cool personality almost made up for Evan’s try-hard persona. He also filled shoes Richard Hammond so desperately wanted to fill, i.e. American ones.
The promise of six shiny new presenters wasn’t quite that. LeBlanc and Evans front the show from a new studio with Sabine Schmitz, Chris Evans, Eddie Jordan, and Rory Reid appearing in clips and segments. To be honest I was disappointed, I was hoping to see more Sabine and Harris on Top Gear.
Those wanting to see more Chris Harris can tune in to the spin-off show Extra Gear where he and Rory Reid cover behind-the-scenes stuff, do the news segment, and have ‘extra’ stuff. The two work well with each other. Reid brings a youthful perspective on things while Chris Harris is still his geeky self, which is great for proper petrolheads but I guess that would’ve put some people off if it was on ‘normal’ Top Gear.
And therein lies the problem with this new Top Gear. It’s not all that new at all. Chris Harris would’ve made it more geeky, which is great for those who want to watch it to learn more about cars. Sabine brings in diversity by being a female, Rory brings in a younger demographic, while Eddie Jordan could bring in motorsports. But instead the four other presenters are only brought in when they’re needed leaving Evans and LeBlanc looking like a tribute act.
It’s a bit like giving your car a personalised plate. Call it what you will, but it’s still the same as it was before. It had all the traits, conventions, and aesthetics we’re familiar with from the old Top Gear.
Supercars, obscure challengers, and superlatives were in good supply. The first episode saw a Dodge Viper ACR go head to head with a Corvette Z06. It was Evans and Sabine dogfighting in their two American cars with laser guns attached to them. Sound familiar?
There was a segment where Matt LeBlanc drove the Ariel Nomad, that ridiculous off-roader from the people who brought you the Atom, against paparazzi on a dirt bike, a hovercraft, and a camera drone. Again, it’s something I could see the old trio doing.
Of course there was also a ‘cheap car challenge’ where Evans and LeBlanc drive to Blackpool in Reliant Rialtos where a series of challenges await them. If this sounds familiar to you then you’re not alone. It’s basically the same recipe as old Top Gear only done with different ingredients.
The closest thing I could think of to compare it to is when Rover got the rights to make their own version of a Honda Accord. It’s basically the same thing, only a little bit worse. The problem is they’ve stayed too close to the same Top Gear we all loved. This was the perfect opportunity for the BBC to revamp Top Gear and allow the new hosts to give it their own feel but instead they’ve relied heavily on the success of the previous Top Gear and haven’t really stretched out to make it their own. It’s a risky play, as they will forever be compared to the Clarkson reign. Which is a shame because it did have its moments.
One new aspect that did change was the celebrity guest segment. I did like how it focused more on the celebrities’ cars and less on whatever it was they were promoting. They’ve also changed the lap the celebs do. The ‘Star in a Rally Cross Car’ puts celebs in a Mini and do a lap on a track that’s half-tarmac, half-dirt. I’m sure there’ll be mishaps in the future but the Mini is far too nice for it to be as ironically entertaining as the old ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’ segment.
This new Top Gear isn’t terrible. 99% of the old Top Gear is carried over. The production values (reported to be £50 million), the entertainment value, and the shouting. What it’s missing is the chemistry and the personalities of the hosts. The screen time we saw banter between Evans and LeBlanc did seem a bit, forced. To be fair it did take some time for the previous three to find their chemistry too, so we shouldn’t be too harsh on Evans and LeBlanc.
As much as I am a fan of Clarkson, Hammond, and May, even I have to admit the later seasons started to become repetitive and predictable. Entertaining sure, but once a show goes on for 22 seasons it starts to beg for a tune ups to keep it running
The first episode sets the tone for the upcoming series and places the base for what viewers can come to expect from the Evans and Le Blanc fronted Top Gear. Those hoping for a massive revamp will be disappointed. There’s no doubt this first episode will draw in a large audience curious to see if this new and improved Top Gear has gotten the tune up it needs.
It’s nowhere near as bad as some (including myself) thought it would be. It’s watchable television entertainment. It’s still basically what Top Gear always has been minus the cheeky banter, controversy, and occasional racism from the last regime. Only those watching with closed eyes, narrow minds, and binding loyalty to Clarkson and Co. will hate on it. It’s far from perfect, and truth be told I’ll probably prefer ‘The Grand Tour’. For the first episode of a supposedly “new” series of Top Gear I was hoping for a bit more bang and wow, something more to set up the next half a dozen or so episodes to come. For all its flaws it didn’t grind my gears too much. So really, it could’ve been far far worse.
The new season of Top Gear will air in New Zealand on Prime TV at 7:30pm Sunday.