How To Fix The Grand Tour

By James O Malley on at

Last week, I argued that The Grand Tour is broken - a controversial claim that, as the weeks go on, is increasingly becoming the conventional wisdom amongst viewers who are capable of engaging with their critical faculties.

Some readers weren’t happy with my very hottest of takes - which is why in light of Episode 5, I’m instead going to be more positive. I'm going to explain how the show can be fixed.

1) Loosen the Script and Stop The Pantomime

“Morroccan Roll” felt like an immediate improvement over much of what we’ve seen previously. Many of the contrivances were still there, but the presenters appeared to at least act more naturalistically. It didn’t have the “primary school nativity being held at gunpoint” quality to it, that previous instalments had.

The Moroccan film was a good example of this. It started by recycling a trope last seen in Episode 3: Two presenters are going to record a review then - shock! - the third (in this case Clarkson) shows up, to their poorly acted surprise. Then there was the segment with the scales. So far, so artificial.

But seeing the seemingly genuine reactions of the presenters to the cows interactions hinted at the chaotic sense of fun that made Top Gear’s best years so watchable.

Even the ludicrous Battleships game was executed rather well. A highly contrived premise, sure - but when Hammond and May played the game, their reactions at least seemed fairly real, and May seemed genuinely pleased to have won. What made it work was that there was no pretending. There was no pretending that one of them had singlehandedly constructed the playing field, no pretending that one them really hated the idea. They didn't articulate it was simple: "Look at this massive budget that Amazon has given it, now watch how we managed to spend a big chunk of it on something ludicrous."

My first recommendation then is to do what fans have been crying out for: Drop the bullshit. Drop the scripted stuff, and let’s see the characters interact in the much more genuine way we know that they're capable of.

2) Ditch the Tent, Conversation Street and Celebrity Brain Crash

When The Grand Tour was first announced, the assumption appeared to be that the plan was to take what was arguably the best bit of Top Gear - the road trips - and spin them into an entire show.

This is perhaps why it was so strange to see the show once it launched was exactly the same as Top Gear. And transplanted away from the BBC, it is clear that the format of the show itself has some significant flaws.

What’s even stranger is despite the premise of the show being that the tent moves around the world is how little the location actually matters. So far, bar one film in Episode 2, in which James May took part in a ‘Spinning’ competition, the location has been completely incidental. In that same episode, despite going all the way to Johannesburg, the main film was in Jordan. In Episode 5 the tent was in Rotterdam, yet the main film was in Marrakech.

If each episode was an exploration of that locale’s car culture, that would make much more sense - and would no doubt make a more compelling show too.

The other major flaw in the current format is “Conversation Street”. As I’ve previously complained, because it isn’t tied to news events it just comes across as three pub bores, tutting about political correctness after reading the Daily Express. It is like someone hit "pause" half way through the show, and sucked all of the life out of proceedings.

It doesn't help that the segment is just weird, because the material is so weak. Despite the lavish expense and huge spectacle of the rest of the show, for some reason each week we have five minutes of Clarkson and co complaining about the Oxford bypass or something. The closest thing it reminds me off is the BBC’s ill-fated That’s Britain - a weird mash-up of a consumer show and light entertainment, which appears to be premised around the sort of topics people make small-talk about. Just get rid of it.

And finally - Celebrity Brain Crash. It turns out that a one-note joke is only funny once, however many times you repeat it. What’s strange is trying to figure out its purpose. Initially, it seemed to be a chance for the presenters to show off their rich and famous friends, what with Hollywood A-listers appearing in the first episode. But since Episode 5 featured an obscure one-hit wonder of a band, it isn’t even serving this narcissistic purpose any more.

3) Make a Travel Show, Not a Car Show

What was always strange about Top Gear was that though it will billed as a car show, it was actually a travel show. Whether travelling to the Arctic, driving across America or racing a bullet train across Japan, the show’s cinematography would always make wherever they were look like fascinating and beautiful places. The cars were, to a certain extent, MacGuffins, rather than the focus of the show.

So what to do is surely obvious: Embrace the best bits of Top Gear and make the show about the Tour. However interesting you think complaining about traffic wardens in a tent is, wouldn’t it be more interesting to see more of them driving through some of the exotic locations that we normal people will never get to visit?

Why not have a race between a bike and a car through central Rotterdam, given the Netherland's well known aptitude for cycling? Or have the presenters go on safari when in South Africa? How about an episode in Detroit, where Clarkson, Hammond and May can both reflect on the city’s contribution to motoring history and the weird post-industrial landscape that now exists there? What about a trip to China, to see the rapid pace at which new roads and cities are being constructed. The world is a big place - and much of it has roads to drive on too.

In short, my message is simple: Get out of the tent and have an actual Grand Tour.

More Giz UK Grand Tour Coverage: