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Sunday, 20 November 2016

Top Gear vs The Grand Tour: Who's Quickest Off The Line?

On the left, New TopGear. On the right, as close to Old TopGear as copyright laws allow...
Earlier this year, as the result of a fracas, some arguments and a loyalty-based mass exodus, legendary BBC motoring show TopGear was reformatted with an all-new lineup of presenters and a quite different production team. It had... mixed results. The first two or three episodes were middling to poor - episode one felt like a rushed pilot and was borderline unwatchable at times - but by the halfway point of a typically short series, the new squad began to hit their stride and started to show some actual potential for the future. However, naturally, there were scores of mindless social media campaigners who just wanted the BBC to excuse a man for needlessly assaulting a colleague and put the old TG back together. There are two reasons why calling for such a thing was and is a waste of time. Firstly, well, as I've already said the BBC can't just re-hire someone who essentially committed a crime, because that's a bad message to send out (again). Secondly, if you wanted the old show with the old presenters and their "chemistry" and "banter" and what have you, all you needed was an Amazon Prime subscription and some patience, surely?

Well, now we have an answer to that second part, because the immensely anticipated show The Grand Tour has finally landed with its debut episode on Prime Video in the UK, US, Germany and Japan (other nations will get it in December, or just pirate it for free as you read this). The general reception has been perhaps predictably positive, although I put it to you, dear reader, that people are mostly pleased because of the unavoidable level of familiarity on display - in fact it felt so familiar to some that the Radio Times has said "The Grand Tour is back," even though this was series one, episode one...

I sort of knew when both shows were announced that the three stooges were likely to just make the kind of show they were already making before - whereas BBC mega-franchise TopGear was now free to reformat and be different - but now that I've actually been confronted with such a product, I feel... unmoved?

Huh.

OK, let's break the debut episode down (MULTIPLE SPOILER ALERT obviously):

> The opening sequence was very nice. They know that we know why this show exists, so they tastefully put together a scene in which The Tall One makes his way from a miserable glass-fronted business building in London to escape to an airport in Los Angeles, wherein he finds out that apparently you can rent a 725-horsepower Fisker-modified Ford Mustang in California. On his way to the middle of nowhere, old mates James May and Richard Hammond suddenly appear in a white Roush-modified Mustang and a red Shelby GT350 to complete the three colours of the American flag (and British, French, Dutch, Russian, etc. etc...). Heartwarming smiles are exchanged and they bugger off into the desert, overtaking cars of all shapes and sizes to arrive at "Burning Van" - a play on Burning Man - so that they can have a hero's entrance. A rocky cover of I Can See Clearly Now takes so long to finish that we have to sit through about 25 different high panning shots divided up by shots of the presenters waving and grinning at the concert audience they've just driven through (amazingly, despite driving three Mustangs, they didn't hit anyone!). The eventual on-stage intro which followed will hopefully be a one-off, because watching them pretending to be rock stars was a little odd.


> The studio tent bit varied vastly in quality throughout. The audience was too trigger-happy with whooping and applauding, although that's just the American style for studio shows. Jeremy immediately patronising the US audience's different automotive vocabulary was tedious (to the point where I felt embarrassed on behalf of less childish Britons), as was the Air Force fracas 'bit' later on that was really just filler. Also disappointing was "Conversation Street," which was suspiciously similar to "The News Bit" on that old BBC show except it was shorter, was introduced by a low-budget sting (a joke that loses its weight on such a high-budget show, no?) and started with Jeremy repeating a couple of old TopGear News chestnuts to really ram home that these are the same old guys who used to be on TopGear don't y'know...
To be honest I'm not sure why they decided to establish their pre-existing TV caricatures so heavy-handedly, because the people watching this show will primarily already know it all from TopGear and not need reminding, while any fresh new viewers are not guaranteed to connect with the characters any better for having them so un-subtly spelt out up front. Finally, the not-a-guest part with all the (visibly breathing) dead celebrities was a tiresome, drawn-out stunt that had me wishing they'd just stuck with one death and got on with something else, although that could just be me misplacing my sense of humor for a minute or two... but to me it was another on-the-nose example of them referencing the old show, only this time they didn't follow all the way through with creating the parallel and made it apparent that they probably won't have guests throughout the series like they used to. It wasn't exactly the old TopGear's most popular feature...
What was good about the studio? Well, mocking James for his 37mph speeding ticket was pleasing and there were moments of more natural banter, plus the concept of a mobile base with audiences from all over the world could keep the setting fresh... unless it just gives Jeremy different nationalist stereotypes to peddle each time. I also hope Convo Corner has some more actual content in it next week to make it worthwhile.

The Eboladrome
> We'll get to content more in a mo, but further setting-up of the format was required, so Clarkson introduced "The Eboladrome," which looks like a tricky little test track as well as looking like the Ebola virus. Their old humour was in further evidence here through corner names such as "The Isn't Straight," "Old Lady's House" (because it's near a house where an old lady lives) and the now-suitably commercialist "Your Name Here," not to mention the perilous penultimate "Cage of Electricity" turn which is overlooked by a small substation. Keen internetters quickly worked out that the Eboladrome is situated at a disused air base near Swindon and conspicuously avoids using the runway around which it wriggles, possibly for legal reasons...
After a demo lap by an unseen driver with a Ferrari 488 GTB, Jeremy gave us a half-length track test feature in the spicy little BMW M2, proclaiming it to be the greatest BMW M car... In The World - although not in those exact words, which was a missed opportunity!
"And now we must put it in the hands of our lame racing driver!" is also a missing phrase, albeit one I just made up regarding their house-trained ex-NASCAR test driver Mike Skinner, a.k.a 'The American.' If Amazon really did insist on an American test driver then, well, OK, but his grumpy in-car commentary felt utterly pointless and subtracted value, as did the "he thinks every non-Mustang is communist" bollocks put on him by the presenters - a joke probably older than some audience members...
OK, I am being quite negative here. The track does look like a good chassis test and "the same racing driver" looks like he'll be pretty handy each week at actually driving the cars. Which is good.

But now to the really good bit:


> The first proper film covered the hyper-hybrid trio and was definitely up to standard, with beautifully dramatic cinematography to capture the energy and adrenaline involved in pushing the limits of grip, driver talent, metaphors and Amazon's swear word censorship hierarchy. However, it's a shame they didn't get a road-registered LaFerrari, because there definitely were some customer cars out there when they filmed the feature about 13 months ago. Mind you, the purple McLaren registered 'P1 OOV' is owned by the McLaren factory and used as a press car, as I assume is true of the German-registered Porsche, so that particular LaFerrari was probably beamed directly from the Fiorano test track rather than being a customer car. Apparently Ferrari didn't fancy paying the road tax on it. Make of that what you will. Oh, and technically the Italian car does have an all-electric mode, but it only works up to 5km/h for garage maneuvering.
The second portion of the film - brought in after the M2's Eboladrome lap that was unsurprisingly slower than an M3 - included input from former F1 driver Jerome d'Ambrosio, providing an impartial adjudicator for track laps around Portimão circuit and an opportunity for mischievous subtitles while he described the cars in French (being as he's Belgian)... just like when they did that with subtitles on the old TopGear! Oh the jape.
The finale closed out with a bet that if the McLaren P1 wasn't the fastest then Richard and James could destroy Jeremy's house. Because the P1 wasn't on its optional semi-slick tyres... it was the slowest. So that'll be a fun future episode!

Side note: I wonder if they filmed these three cars on or near the day that Chris Harris On Cars filmed those three exact factory-supported cars on the same circuit for his own video feature...

----

Overall, the first episode of The Grand Tour (which is a really generic name, by the way...) ended up feeling quite self-conscious. Sometimes this wasn't a problem, such as with the opening sequence up to but not including the on-stage part, but at multiple points, especially in the tent, it lead to some slightly contrived character acting of the kind that was making TopGear feel a bit tired before it was reformatted. The trouble is, because there were genuine moments when the famous chemistry between the three of them was able to present itself naturally, it showed up the less genuine bits, like when an actor keeps slipping in and out of character. However, this first episode is meant to establish the new show and it has done that emphatically, meaning that hopefully the rest of the series will have a bit more room to flow.

How did it compare to new-new TopGear? Well if we're comparing apples to apples then I have to compare it with the first episode, which was terrible. Chris Evans's take on the show wasn't just aimed at children, it felt like it was written by children. Actually the best description I heard was that it was like someone's amateur fan-fiction where they write themselves into the show... which is not a compliment. It was widely publicised that the aftermath of Clarkson-gate was extremely messy for the BBC show, with directors and producers joining, arguing with Evans and then leaving until finally they managed to nail a few things down. This showed in the first couple of episodes.


What we've got now are two shows that are both trying to be the show that effectively doesn't exist anymore... but neither of them quite can be. New-new TopGear can't be Old TopGear because it doesn't have Pinky & Perky & Pedant who were so central to making the format work, whereas TGT can't be Old TG for legal reasons but gets as close as it dares, like the equivalent of the cars you see in Grand Theft Auto games that bear an uncanny resemblance to real cars without actually being them. In the end, both shows therefore feel a little contrived as they go to great lengths to feel familiar to us, albeit in different ways, yet ultimately can't be what they imitate.

I honestly fear that the Clarkson/Hammond/May/Wilman/Porter combination of people that moved to Amazon don't really know what else to make at this point, having developed and honed a comfortable routine over 12 years on the BBC. I mean, they had a completely new brand and a blank cheque to start afresh, yet they just re-jigged what they were doing before because it would please all the Facebook campaigners who just wanted Old TopGear back.
Meanwhile, New TopGear suffered a similar problem the other way around, having a chance to reinvigorate a global smash-hit brand that was in need of refreshing and yet not figuring out exactly how to do that. Once it recovered from a squiffy first couple of episodes, its biggest problem was forced banter and possibly still a lack of clear direction (not to mention a lack of depth in the car reviews). The first tGT episode beat the first TG mk.3 episode, but as an overall package moving forwards? Neither of them scores a clear victory at this stage, if you ask me.
The next new series of TG in 2017 needs to have much more confidence about itself, something that's achievable now they have a practiced crew and don't have the mercurial Evans to deal with.

I don't intend to pick a side here. Once both shows do find their feet, I want them to push each other to get better and promote some healthy competition, which would benefit us all as car enthusiasts in need of entertainment... in theory.

In the meantime, all we can do is continue watching both shows and see what really happens. On top of that, I'm also intrigued by the Amazon team's online offshoot DriveTribe, which aims to be a social and content hub for all things automotive. It's already absorbed a host of magazine writers and YouTubers, so it may actually end up being that which becomes the next big thing after all. Time will tell...


Written exclusively for SmallBlog V8. Do not copy without permission.

1 comment:

  1. If the first episode of tGT was safe, in terms of the format, maybe that's because they want to be sure the old fans are still onside before they start making big changes. Time might tell.

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