“The Grand Tour” not grand enough — wriggle room for returning “Top Gear?”


So I waited around to binge-watch the entire “first series” of “The Grand Tour,” biding my Amazon Prime time, wanting to see the whole thing in one sitting.

As a long-time “Top Gear” fan, owner of many a boxed set of the boys and their car hijinks, someone who once bought a vintage British sports car on James May’s recommendation,  I was looking forward to their reboot, though perhaps not with the fervid anticipation of some.

And watching the increasingly portly Jeremy Clarkson, ever-more-wizened James May and experiments in diminutive dye-jobs of Richard Hammond in their tent, with shows from the US southwest, Johannesburg, Whitby, Rotterdam and snowy Finland, I was reminded why I’d gotten control of my addiction a few years back.

The shows have turned repetitive, routine. Only the TG series finale (sans Clarkson) was worth checking into, with featured films that they’d never gotten around to airing on the regular run of the series. Vintage car “restorations,” late model SUV “rambling” through fox hunting country — funny.

The epic road trips in unsuitable or unserviceable used cars were the best things about the series. Title the new show “The Grand Tour,” and you kind of expect that to be the way they go.

But no. New Mustangs, another comical riff on self-designed “green” cars, drifting, drifting drifting Dodges and the like, group drives in enviro-friendlier hyper cars, more Mustangs, and a drawling cliche of NASCAR Americana replacing the Stig. They did away with the “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” bit for a straining running gag about inviting celebrities who appear in a filmed gag only to “die” before reaching the set.

Paging Alan Partridge.

Ginned up scripted “controversy”? Smacks of desperation, the desperation that had Amazon giving away the premiere away over the holidays.

The only memorable bits in six episodes were the opening to the premiere episode, with Clarkson and his mates departing dreary England for sunny Southern California and a “bright, sunshiny day,” and James May’s oddly-timed appreciation of the Ford GT. Yes, they did that on “Top Gear” five years ago. And yes, the movie “The 24 Hour War” came out before this much-hyped, much-delayed series made its bow. But May, the historian and pedant of the show, did a decent enough job summing up (again, and far too briefly) the Ford vs. Ferrari LeMans wars of the 1960s.

And about that “departure.” Though Jalopnik and others are swallowing it, still, I’m not buying the cover story that the punching of a producer was the reason Clarkson was canned. Remember, the sacking came mere weeks after the BBC went to the mat for him over the debacle in Argentina. Clarkson and/or the BBC had broken the law, faking/customizing a Falklands War “coded” licence plate as a joke for their Patagonian road trip, claimed that they didn’t (because it is illegal to do that) and were looking for an excuse that would let the BBC off the hook and let Clarkson save face.

But all would be forgiven if the new show was a dazzler. And it isn’t. “Conversation Street” is just inane, scripted formulaic and jokey chatter about cars and what have you. The gags — playing “Battleship” with old cars, G-Wizes and cranes — were merely passable filler. I rather liked Hammond’s little “Mustang now available with Wrong Hand Drive Steering here in the UK” appreciation. They’ve lost a little of the show’s eccentric Britishness — slang and “personalities” unknown outside the Empire.

The test drives/reviews have a little bite, though one does wonder about the product placement factor in a show that no longer has a “news” network and its standards to prevent pay-for-play deals. They’re all about the shiny new toys, and that was only part of the appeal of the old show.

They’re topping the season with a dune buggy trek through Namibia. Even that seems like a “been there, done that with this lot” variation.

Which suggests that “Top Gear” still has a shot at getting it right and doing it better. The Chris Evans/Matt LeBlanc show had just as many memorable “bits” as “The Grand Tour” – the long-overdue “Jeep vs. Land Rover” challenge, and visit the uncut video of that LeBlanc “Hoonigan” tourist trek through London, which Hammond mocked in GT by “being respectful” driving the Mustang past the same war memorials in London. It’s the best “Top Gear” segment in years.

hoonThe dazzling car porn production values are now spread out over two programs — GT and TG. Many many edits, many many cool angles, much drone footage, lots of slo-mo, endurable music rights clearances. But all “The Grand Tour” amounts to is filming the various public appearance tours the three rich Yorkshiremen have been doing for years for gas money, showing the flag in front of adoring crowds hither and yon. Yawn.

Getting TG back on the road for some epic, break-down filled “adventure” drives would level the playing field, especially if the chemistry and overloaded cast problems of New Gear are worked out. Yeah, that’s a big “if,” but LeBlanc seems to mix with the younger guys who are stepping in. If it turns out the Youtube star and the trained racing driver are inept at improvised repairs, so much the better. Old funny guys rule.

In essence, you can say the same thing about “The Grand Tour” that one said at the conclusion of the Chris Evans “Top Gear” year. The jury’s still out. Show us something. Thanks to a lot of hype and not a lot of backup for that hype, “Grand Tour” has kept “Top Gear” alive, left the old show some passing room on the straightaways. Do they have enough HP (BHP) under the hood (bonnet) to make it a real race?

We’ll see.


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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