I always had a hate/hate relationship with Top Gear. I hated the presenters: I hated how they would seemingly cast doubt on the reality of climate change, how they would undermine the necessary transition to electric cars, and how they would position themselves as heroes of Daily Mail readers -- by appealing to their sense that there's something wrong with political correctness.
But I also hate myself: The show was always stunningly well produced on a technical level, and it was always an entertaining watch too. The Top Gear US special, in which they travelled from Miami to New Orleans was one of the best pieces of factual entertainment I've ever seen.
So again, hating myself, I was secretly rather excited to see how the old formula would be reworked for Amazon. Last week's first episode was a good start: It took the old formula, and basically did things exactly the same, but with a bigger budget.
So could Clarkson, Hammond and May match this again for episode 2? In short: No. In long: Nooooooooo.
Operation Desert Stumble
The big film in episode two was dubbed "Operation Desert Stumble" by Amazon and saw the presenters take a trip to the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Centre in Jordan - where we would then proceed to spend something like 20-30 minutes watching them train to become special forces soldiers, with the expectation of hilarious consequences.
What was striking about the film though was how it simply didn't work on a fundamental level. The production values were typically high, there was plenty of on-screen japes to be had (Clarkson's trousers fell down, lol) - but... there was something missing: the illusion that we were seeing something real.
Now, if you know anything about how TV is made, pretty much nothing that makes its way on to our screens is ever truly real - and Top Gear was surely always approximately as real as an episode of Eastenders. When Clarkson rolled into view on the Top Gear US special with a dead cow strapped to the roof of his car, that was obviously a long planned contrivance on the part of the production team. But as a viewer of an ostensibly factual show, you buy into its magical realist sensibilities. The rational part of your brain knows that it is all deeply contrived - but the enjoyment part of your brain tells it to shut up.
"Operation Desert Stumble", unlike Top Gears of yore, completely shatters the artifice, and made it impossible for the viewer to buy what Clarkson and co were selling. At the start of the piece, the premise is that they will have to complete an anti-terrorist training assault course at the behest of their producer, Andy Wilman. Obviously the rich and famous telly men would have the power to refuse to do something if they didn't really want to do it, but okay, whatever. I'll go along with this.
What grates is that Clarkson then sets up the piece by explaining that if the presenters "die", they must start again, a la the film Edge of Tomorrow. In the way the film is constructed then, the audience is supposed to believe that after each sketch (because that is essentially what we were watching), the presenters went back and did it all over again. On top of this were other contrivances, such as pretending they were using live ammunition. At one point, Hammond remarks that he doesn't know where the country of Jordan is in the service of a joke about why he is wearing snow camouflage gear. This is patently ridiculous, not least because he visited the country in the Top Gear Middle East Special. It's a red flag to the viewer: "Remember, all of this is made up".
What we were watching then, was closer to scripted drama than a factual show, and a show that badly over-estimated the credulity of its audience. Here were some men, doing some stuff, for no clearly defined purpose - without the conceit of doing it all in the service of, say, reviewing a car. As film makers know, if you want characters to go on a journey you need a MacGuffin - a trigger for whatever action is happening on-screen. Cars are that MacGuffin, and without it the whole rationale for what they are doing falls apart.
Here's hoping that Episode 2 wasn't an ominous sign of further self-indulgent things to come.