So, episode two of the second season is a race against time. Not just for me, against the looming threat of being driven insane, but also for Clarkson, Hammond and May, who in the episode’s central film do a classic Top Gear-style race, pitting a Ford supercar against public transport, to see which can get from New York’s Central Park to the Niagara Falls in the quickest time.
This actually started promisingly. Clarkson, on the streets of Manhattan explained some of the features of the car, explaining how the seat could be adjusted and so on. And then he went to Central Park to meet his opponents, James May and Richard Hammond.
And then we hit our first bump on the awkward no-man’s-land between fiction and reality on which The Grand Tour navigates. May and Hammond would be getting to the finish line by taking the New York subway to JFK, and then flying to Buffalo - where they’d then take a couple of busses. The twist, however, is that Hammond was on crutches, following his very real crash in the Swiss mountains. “You’ve got a handicap”, Clarkson informs May.
The problem is… did he though? Because of the blurred reality, it was impossible to tell whether Hammond really was facing mobility challenges, or whether it was all just a slapstick act for the camera. What makes this distinction important was that much of the rest of the film was packed with gags, slights and commentary that took the piss out of this.
May referred to himself as Hammond’s “carer”, we saw Hammond fumble through the subway gates with his crutches, and so on. Whether this was real or not impacts how we see the joke: Were we laughing along with Hammond, happy to make light of the mobility challenge he now faces? Or were three millionaires pissing about with crutches and wheelchairs to take the piss out of the disabled? I suppose if the presenters had earned the viewers’ trust earlier, we might assume they wanted to highlight how tricky navigating public transport infrastructure can be for some people - back in the studio they tried claiming they were doing this, before joking about “progressive BLT issues”. But given their track record, it read to me like they were punching down.
But all of this said, in essence, it felt like at least the premise of the bit was authentic: We were going to see a real race. I mean, it is between two arbitrary points so isn’t really proving anything, and the producers could have planned it to get whichever outcome they like. But at least it felt as though there were stakes and a real challenge with an unknown outcome, of sorts. And hey, we’d get to see the road-trip/travel show stuff that Top Gear used to do best.
Unfortunately then, rather than simply show us what happened - extra contrivances were dropped on top of this plausibly true scenario.
For example, Hammond and May had a tricky time getting through airport security because of Hammond’s mobility. So we saw May go through just fine - and then Hammond get a close-up talking to from a TSA security officer, with a side of the sort of nudge-wink gay innuendo that come have come straight out of a school playground 20 years ago (I’m presuming today’s kids are more enlightened than my generation was).
What really takes you out of the scenario is that as they pass through security, the camera crew are already positioned at the security check to film the encounter. Are we supposed to believe that a TV camera crew fired up their gear to capture this moment? Of course not - anyone who has been through airport security has seen the big red signs reminding passengers to not take photos (let alone produce big budget 4K HDR TV shows).
To get the shot, the production team would have had to liaise with the Department of Homeland Security, and while filming the sketch there would have been a department press officer just out of shot making sure everything went okay. In fact, we know this happened because the end credits thank the Department of Homeland Security in the credits. And this just raises more questions: What about the race? Are they really in a race against time? Not if they had to stop for a bit to shoot this sequence. So much for the dramatic tension.
The strangest contrivance though was with JetBlue, the American airline. As Clarkson drives uptown through Manhattan, he is seen calling JetBlue customer services and asking for Hammond and May to be bumped down to economy class from business for their flight. The customer services agent is heard processing Clarkson’s request.
But here’s the thing: JetBlue doesn’t have business class on the JFK to Buffalo route. The airline only uses Embraer 190 - and as it such a short route and such a small plane, it isn’t configured for business use. The best you can get is slightly more legroom, but that’s about it.
That sounds like a weird thing to make up. But then you see in the credits at the end that JetBlue was in the show because it was paid product placement. Of course, it’s hard to begrudge Amazon for selling product placement in the show - someone needs to pay for Clarkson’s steak dinners after all. But why all of the bullshit on top?
As for the rest of show well, it was exactly the same: The celebrity interviews were passable and completely forgettable, and “Conversation Street” was as interminable as ever - this time with the presenters bantering about the problems with self-driving cars, with the sort of smug complacency last seen on the faces of Hillary Clinton supporters the day before the election.
For all of my criticisms though, there was stuff to like in the episode. The race certainly had more tension than last week’s Switzerland film, and coincidentally for me, the race started and ended at places I’ve visited. The cinematography was typically beautiful.
Perhaps the most surprising thing was the inclusion of a woman - yes, an actual woman. Having dumped “The American” from last season, the show now has a new driver to take cars around the “Eboladrome” track - professional racing driver Abbie Eaton. Admittedly, she wasn’t allowed to speak but ah well, there’s always next week.