When I signed off my Gizmodo UK editorship last October, I was sad to go. Despite the promise of new challenges ahead, I was going to miss working with my excellent colleagues. But whenever I felt sad about it, I gave myself a little pep talk while looking in the bathroom mirror: “At least you’ll never have to watch The Grand Tour ever again”, I’d tell myself.
So, of course, with grim inevitability fate has intervened and here I am again. Because of my long track record of appealing to the Giz audience with my Grand Tour takes, new editor Tom asked me to return for One Last Take, and because I am a fool, I accepted. Just when I thought I got out, they pulled me back in.
So what to make of TGT as it begins its third season?
In short: it’s basically exactly the same as it ever was. Clarkson, May and Hammond continue on having learned nothing since last year, with digs at “vegan, hippy, peace beans” grown in urban allotments, and at one point James May really goes for the zeitgeist and – in a tone of unclear seriousness – accuses his co-hosts of being “snowflakes”. The only difference is that Jeremy Clarkson is looking slightly more… portly than he did last season.
The meat of the episode is a film set in Detroit, the birthplace of the car industry which in more recent years has faced unrivalled decline and now a tentative rebirth. “This isn’t a racetrack, it's a Whole Foods market”, says Clarkson, cruising through a regenerated downtown Detroit, adding “We need to get out of here, it's the enemy”.
The presenting trio were there to drive muscle cars, on the slightly wonky premise that, given Detroit’s rapid de-population (the city now is about a third of the size as it was at peak), the deserted roads and abandoned industrial landscapes will make for the “perfect petrolhead theme park”.
Okay, whatever – at least the end result is a film that is typically beautifully shot, with the crumbling Packard Motor Company plant making for some striking scenery. For some reason, footage of roaring engines and tyres screeching were intercut with interstitial shots aping the comic-book page-flipping that the Marvel logo at the start of films uses, and despite the incongruity it worked well.
In terms of the action, it was pretty much standard Grand Tour fare, with all of the frustrations that contains. For example, they hold a drag race on one street, and Hammond explains that he cannot participate as the manufacturer only let him borrow the car if it didn’t race on public roads. Perhaps this was true, but that doesn’t really explain why we could see the barriers that were clearly closing off the street to other traffic on screen in one shot, and a cherry-picker that was clearly being used for wider aerial shots in another.
In other words, though we’re now three seasons in and The Grand Tour still contains its most fatal flaw: the line between fiction and reality is blurred, undermining the stakes the audience might have in the on-screen action. Am I watching a purportedly real thing that’s all fake? Or a fictional thing with shitty acting?
This stretched incredulity was repeated later in another race segment in the former Cadillac factory. The programme told us that Richard Hammond had constructed the track himself, and that the corners of the track would be named after famous Detroit musicians – which after all of this exposition, is paid off with an incredibly weak skit in which we’re supposed to believe that Hammond had confused Sonny Bono with Bono from U2. What makes it more annoying is after the punchline, when you mentally work backwards to work out just how much exposition took place in service of what just happened. And don’t think too hard, or you’ll have to consider how the production team thought this joke was so good that they wrote it into a script, created a visual cue for it, and brought the prop all the way to Detroit with them.
The worst part, however, was a gag at the end of the Detroit film – which inadvertently took a swing at the one part of the episode that you might have assumed would be sacred: the lap times. Rather than let Clarkson finish his lap, we see Hammond and May pour a (conveniently well labelled) barrel of palm oil on to the track to knock Clarkson off-course. Obviously, this was a contrivance, as it would simply be too dangerous to do for real. And because of the ambiguous reality vortex that the show swirls around in, it just makes the whole thing feel unsatisfying.
There were some good sides to the Detroit film though. You could almost – really almost – see The Grand Tour dare try to do something thoughtful. The story of Detroit is a fascinating one, because of the scale of the decline, and it is a story that will have touched millions of people in a very direct and obvious way, as thousands of jobs were lost. As they noted on the show, the city went from being one of the richest in America, to one of the poorest.
You can almost sense a desire to reflect on this at the start of the scene shot in the palatial theatre that has since become an abandoned multi-storey car-park. Maybe they could have done something similar in tone to James May’s film about the Ford/Ferrari rivalry?
Instead, the presenters decided to see whose car can make the loudest noise instead.
Sadly though, the unreality remains: The Grand Tour is still a factual show that is too scared to contain any actual facts.
James O’Malley is a former editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.