The Grand Tour Still Hasn't Learnt From Its Mistakes

By James O Malley on at

This time last year was a dark time for me. I was trapped in a relationship from which I just couldn’t escape: Every week Amazon would put out a brand new episode of The Grand Tour, and every week, with grim inevitability, I would end up hate-watching and writing about why I don’t like it.

Hey, you can’t judge me - you people clicking on my rants are the reason I kept doing it.

So fast-forward to December 2017 and here we are again. Season 2. Clarkson, May and Hammond are back and this time, according to producer Andy Wilman at last night’s glitzy launch event in London, the show has “found its feet”.

What’s my view? There’s definitely a grain of truth to this claim - but there’s still so much that demonstrates the show still hasn’t learned from all of the mistakes it made last series.

Driving Me Insane

As you settle down to watch S2E1, you’ll realise that despite the slightly remixed theme music, the loss of “The American” and “Celebrity Braincrash” segments, the show is, essentially exactly the same.

Sure, there are some superficial changes - the studio segments for the entire 13 week run will be coming from the same spot in Oxfordshire, and James May has trimmed his hair. But tonally, the show still continues to walk an uncomfortable tightrope between reality and fiction, and the whole thing is still coated with a glaze of try-hard “un-PC” humour.

The blurred line continues to weigh down the show. As I described last series, basically all “unscripted” TV is scripted, because that’s how TV works - but back in the Top Gear days, there was at least a veneer of reality. Instead, The Grand Tour is written more like a pantomime.

Perhaps we’re supposed to take The Grand Tour as something like Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip - the show in which Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan play fictionalised versions of themselves. But in that case, it is clear the show starts as fiction and uses the actors’ real lives to inform the story and the jokes. The Grand Tour is clearly still trying to do something like this, but the wrong way around - so that we start in reality but with fantastical, fictional elements introduced. Unfortunately this way around, as proven repeatedly last season, simply doesn’t work.

In this first episode episode, there isn’t anything quite as egregious as the awful military training film from last year but there are still too many clearly scripted moments in service of gags.

In the Switzerland film, for instance, the trio stay at a health-spa hotel, supposedly as Hammond was in charge of the booking - cue complaints about the lack of “real’ food from other other two, and shots of them receiving massages and the like. This gag is paid off later on when, on arrival the next location, Clarkson and May are seen running to the fast-food van to get their fix.

Sure, this sounds like it could have been a funny moment in a scripted show - but in this ambiguous reality, it merely forces the viewer to question their credulity: Why would Hammond book the hotel? Wouldn’t it be a researcher or producer on the show? Why would it be surprising - wouldn’t the presenters as the creatives and the talent all have roles in planning each shoot? Were there food trucks selling hotdogs at the next place they went, or did Amazon pay for them to be there in service of the gag? Was the hotel even a health spa where normal foods were not available?

Umm - in that last case, the answer is “no”, as TripAdvisor reveals that the hotel in fact has two restaurants. One is called “Park Grill”, which one review describes as “very interesting for meat lovers”.

Another sequence similar just brings to mind questions like this. At one point, the trio take off in their sports cars and are held at a red light. There’s a whole bit about how long they’re waiting at the lights - with a “5 minutes later” caption added to show time passing and so on. Eventually, they decide to head to a smaller road, which causes havoc due to the low ground clearance and wide turning circle on the cars. This was clearly what was intended for the show all along - but what’s maddening is why didn’t they just set up this chain of events by saying “Let’s see if these cars can handle steep and narrow mountain roads”? Why did it need the whole traffic light contrivance?

Oh, and at one point in the Switzerland film, Clarkson and May are bickering about something and Hammond looks to the camera and, imitating a DJ, jokes about listening to “Radio Old”. Which seems like an odd jibe to make given that he has most recently made headlines for having some surprisingly old-fashioned opinions himself.

And this leads perfectly to what is still the very worst thing: “Conversation Street”, a segment in which the three presenters have decided to take Jeff Bezos’ millions and… sit around for a few minutes and engage in some sub-local radio level bants.

Topics for this scene-setting first show: James May has had a haircut, the medical ailments of the presenters (they misleadingly imply pneumonia is caused by cold weather, when it is in fact transmitted via bacteria). And worst of all, for reasons I forget they started to solicit audience opinions on “the most annoying noises”. “Good conversation, I like that”, said Hammond, presumably while thinking his enormous paycheque for churning out… this.

Signs Of Improvement

As with the last season, despite my criticisms, there are still elements of the show I like: The stunning cinematography, for instance, and the travel-show aspects.

The new “Celebrity Face-Off” section also - to my surprised - showed some promise. The premise is simple: Two celebrities from the same field both race a Jaguar around the new Grand Tour test track, in a bid to prove that they are better than the other. For the first episode, the guests were Kaiser Chiefs frontman Ricky Wilson and David Hasselhoff - the face off ostensibly being between two talent show judges.

What was relatively refreshing is how unscripted it felt compared to the rest of the show. Obviously in reality the segment will have been pretty tightly planned - that’s just how TV works - but squint and you almost got the impression that Clarkson, Wilson and the Hoff were having a conversation where they didn’t know exactly what the others would say next.

Perhaps the best of the show though - and I mean this in the least mean way possible - was Richard Hammond’s crash. It was handled incredibly well. “We all know how that ends”, joked Clarkson obliquely as the show took the first of three dips into the Switzerland film.

The crash came right at the end of the show, and was visceral punch of reality cutting through the artifice that I find so grating. Hammond’s crash isn’t shown on screen - it cuts to black, and we just hear it happen. The camera then cuts to shaky footage of the emergency services rushing in, and the air ambulance arriving. We see the car on fire and the distant figure of Richard Hammond being stretchered away. There’s no narration. It’s virtually silent. It cuts to black and we’re back in the studio. And then Clarkson punctures the horror with a joke.

It was a very effective way of building the crash into the show - it was perhaps unintentionally revealing: The most engaging moment of the entire hour was the one thing that was definitely real. And that’s not just because it involved a crash - it is because there were real stakes, a real sense of unpredictability - and a real sense that as a viewer, we’re experiencing the same feelings as the people on screen - we’re not just watching actors reading from a script.

Ultimately, I think I just want more of this. Not presenters nearly dying in car accidents - but more of a feeling that what I’m watching actually matters. Hell, that’s the same thing I wanted last year when I said the show is “Some men, doing some stuff, for no clearly defined purpose” - a quote which Amazon pulled from my review and has had plastered across the top of the Amazon website for the last week.

I also want the show not to be hampered by a lack of ambition. Though I am clearly a critical voice, I still want the show to be good. With a budget that large, and a team of clearly talented filmmakers, it still feels like there is a good show trapped inside a very bad one. Here’s hoping that the rest of the season continues to head in that direction.

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