When the BBC
sacked decided not to renew the contract of Jeremy Clarkson, and when Clarkson responded by doing pretty much the same old show but on Amazon’s Prime Video platform, the events created what scientists call a “natural experiment”.
This is when control conditions are decided by nature, rather than by design. For example, the introduction of smoking bans across the world at different time enabled scientists to compare the health of similar populations, with and without a smoking ban - so it is possible to measure the impact.
So what natural experiment are the BBC and Amazon answering? Can Top Gear work without Jeremy Clarkson?
Last series, the first with the current presenting line-up of Matt LeBlanc, Rory Reid and Chris Harris, I declared the answer a resounding yes. In fact, at the time I argued that Top Gear is better than The Grand Tour.
Now the 2018 series has arrived. It is effectively a series 2 for this trio (we don’t talk about Chris Evans). So we must ask: Is Top Gear still better than its rival? On the strength of the first episode, I’m pleased to say that the answer is yes - though I’m increasingly worried that Top Gear is at risk of developing some of the worst habits of Clarkson, Hammond and May.
First off is the studio segments: The banter still doesn’t feel entirely natural, and it’s clear that LeBlanc isn’t an entirely natural host (why not let Chris or Rory introduce the show instead?). But it still seems like an improvement from last time around as the presenters are clearly more comfortable with each other now.
“Star In A Reasonably Fast Car” is back, this time with guest Rob Brydon. And… well… this is basically fine, if unremarkable (he didn’t even appear to be on the show because he has something to plug). Mercifully, they appear to have learned from last series, and Brydon didn’t awkwardly stick around in the studio for the rest of the show like guests did last series.
A Trip To Utah
As always though, the best part of the show was the road trip. For this first episode of the series, the presenting trio each took a V8-engine powered sports car to the deserts of Utah.
As we’ve come to expect from Top Gear, the photography was jaw-dropping, and the production team captured some beautiful landscapes, and some incredible post-industrial scenery. It was as though Reid, Harris and LeBlanc were cruising around the northern parts of Los Santos, with someone following them to take some drone shots as they do it. This segment, along with half a dozen iguanas and capybaras from David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II are essentially an irrefutable argument that the BBC should start routinely putting content out in 4K.
The meat of the road trip was in the different activities the trio stopped to take part in. There was a “quick draw” contest, in which a pair of competitors have to drive as slowly as possible from each other, before quickly U-turning and driving back when a signal is given. There was a “figure of 8” rally, in which trains of three cars that had been chained together had to race.
And they contrived a chase, where on an (abandoned?) runway, the three cars were pursued by some sort of monster truck/dune buggy hybrid - with the objective being to reach the “border crossing” set up at the end of the runway, in a tribute to how prohibition era gangsters would race to cross state lines with their illicit cargo.
And this is where I got a little bit nervous. Having relentlessly criticised The Grand Tour for its endless use of what one might politely call “artistic license”, there were signs that the road trip was not quite as real as the show wanted us to believe.
I mean, of course it wasn’t, because this is telly and nothing on TV is entirely authentic. Like Clarkson and co before them, the film tried to walk the awkward tightrope between using reality to create the tension and purpose in what they’re doing (“who will win?!”), and using fiction to enable cleaner punchlines (no need to wait for the magic to happen if you can pre-write it).
It was a slightly frustrating watch, because there were a number of tells which gives the game away to a sufficiently savvy viewer.
For example, at one point, LeBlanc makes a joke about the Harris’s car boot being large enough to fit “a sheet of A4 paper”. I know this complaint is going to make me the world’s worst person, but why would LeBlanc have the knowledge and cultural context to make this joke? A4 paper isn’t really used on the other side of the Atlantic - they have a different “standard” size. Maybe it was a quip made on the fly, but it sounded like something written back in the writer’s room.
There was also a gag that was very Grand Tour in its execution. The setup was a funny line that sounded like it could have been a throwaway point that they’d accidentally captured on film: Harris says that seeing LeBlanc driving a Mustang on a Nascar track in the desert was basically “American Heaven”. “Give that man a foot long wiener, and he is complete”, he quips. Hey, that’s some #topbants right there! But then the show goes and spoils it by cutting to a shot of LeBlanc actually eating a hot dog, which instead of enhancing the quip only reveals the bit as a contrivance.
True or False?
I shuddered when in voice over LeBlanc told the audience “we stumbled upon” an airfield, as it had echoes of when Clarkson, May and Hammond in Switzerland encountered “road works” and had to take a route that was better optimised for on-screen hijinks.
Clearly in this case, the location had been booked and scouted weeks in advance, and the BBC had acquired all of the permits and paperwork required to film. The insurance company would have signed off on their plans, and the health and safety team would have assessed the airfield for risks. What’s wrong with just telling the viewer that you thought it’d be cool to do this on an airfield? Why dress up the premise?
The most frustrating fictions though were the ones that impacted the integrity of the activities they were doing. I mean, I know Top Gear is ultimately about messing about in cars - but as a viewer you still have to buy into the silliness. So, for example, the “chase”, in which they had to outrun the dune-buggy could have been played straight: We could have invested in the outcome, willing them to do it as a viewer. But the sequence includes some shots that are clearly staged. For example, there’s a very impressive shot where the dune buggy shoots up a ramp and jumps over a car that happens to be passing underneath… but there’s no way it wasn’t carefully staged, with all of the health and safety checks that such a stunt would require. And once you realise this, the whole sequence unravels as you can’t trust what is real and what isn’t.
So given these reservations, you might be expecting me to pour scorn on Top Gear, for walking into the same traps as The Grand Tour, right?
However, there is one crucial difference: Top Gear lacks the nasty, bullying atmosphere of its rival. As I said last series, it really seems as though Reid, Harris and LeBlanc actually enjoy each other’s company. This friendlier tone - though there is still obviously some gentle ribbing - makes spending time with these characters something that is actually something you might want to do. And this counts for a lot: It’s one of the reasons why sitting down and watching Avengers seems like less of an ordeal than watch Old Man Batman and Moody Superman joylessly punch each other in the rain in Batman vs Superman.
What I’m saying is that though there are still some flaws in its execution, Top Gear simply feels less nasty and is all the more enjoyable for it. It’s hard to imagine, to pick one completely random hypothetical, Rory Reid totally losing his shit if he couldn’t get a steak at 10 o’clock at night.
So well done Top Gear - you’re still on top and are still performing better than the experiment’s control. I’m optimistic about the rest of the series too: The pre-publicity promises two things: More of an emphasis on the films, and more comedy. I just hope that “more comedy” doesn’t mean “more reality bending”. But what’s important is that I actually want to find out. On the strength of the first episode, I’ll be tuning in next week to watch this natural experiment continue.