Well, here we are. Just over a year after Jeremy Clarkson gave ‘The Smack In The Mouth Heard Round The World’ to his unfortunate producer and got sacked for it, Top Gear has been resurrected from the dead, as the BBC scrambles to keep one of its most popular geese laying its golden eggs. Ever since the reboot was announced, though, audiences have doubted that a show built largely on the personalities and chemistry of the three presenters could actually survive without it. As it turns out…it can, just about, though there are definitely elements that need reworking.
There were three main segments. The best of these was a challenge in Morocco, where Matt LeBlanc had to drive the Ariel Nomad – an impressively lightweight and speedy off-roader – and get it past three dark-suited “villains” without being photographed. With the villains using a drone, a dirt bike and a vaguely-Marvel-universe-style parachute contraption, the chase was on. Impressive speed cutting, switches in aspect ratio and colouration from the editing team were used to convey the speed of the car effectively and although it was more obviously scripted than other Top Gear segments, it was still great at showing a casual audience what the Ariel Nomad could do.
The opening segment was no slouch either. After introducing us to the new Dodge Viper and its impressive rear fin (which glues the car down with a ton of pressure once it turns to give it some impressive turning skills), new presenter Sabine Schmitz (the actual professional racing driver amongst the main three) went up against US Navy pilots in a rival sports car in what appeared to be the world’s fastest game of laser-tag. Some have criticized that premise for being a little too jingoistic, but it’s not like “boy, the military has some cool stuff, doesn’t it” was a concept never explored in the old Top Gear.
Sabine was entertaining, as she excitedly hunted down the pilots and the sequence was again fast-paced and stylishly shot. It will be good to see more of her in future episodes. Even the most possibly-scripted element – the fact that her driving made the pilot alongside her almost throw up afterwards – had a layer of authenticity to it that made it funny. Chris Evans testing the Viper also provided for some quips from the writing staff, some being zippier than others. “It’s as close as you can get to being a racing driver without wearing your blood-type on a bracelet” was witty – “it’s as cutting-edge as a rusty crowbar” fell somewhat flatter.
In the third segment, though, Chris Evans and LeBlanc drove to Blackpool in Reliant Rialtos. It rained on the way and Matt’s car broke down, but then he got it towed. This was all about as fun as that description made it sound. LeBlanc seemed like he was on Ambien for the first half, but livened up a little when he got to snark about his car while it rode on the tow-truck. Granted, here his demeanour was less wooden than his interaction with Chris Evans on the set.
Other segments included’ Star In A Reasonably Priced Car’, now rejigged to be ‘Two Stars In A Rally Car’. It’s a moderately interesting change in format, since now there’s two stars to compete with and play off each other. This week’s contestants were Gordon Ramsay and Jesse Eisenberg. After a visibly awkward introduction in which the two had to introduce each other, they got to talk to Chris Evans for a bit. Ramsay didn’t do that much, although he did win the challenge in the end, while Eisenberg got the flack one might expect for a Top Gear challenge contestant who doesn’t drive a car.
The other awkward part of the segment, incidentally, was the focus on audience participation as they were asked to clap and shout for their favourite cars owned by each contestant. I’m somewhat surprised that the BBC, of all channels, didn’t realize the fatal flaw in basing part of the show around getting the British to cheer.
Finally, this review can’t end without talking about Chris Evans: the ginger Clarkson impersonator in the room. The first day in a new job is always the scariest, but he spent his time alternating between running around and yelling and yanking Clarkson’s style for some “off-colour” jokes and celebrity banter. Hopefully he’ll come into his own in later episodes. Failing that, maybe they got five presenters so we could vote some out in the coming weeks.
All in all, then, nothing revolutionary’s been changed. Since the BBC have the Top Gear format to try and retain fans, even without the original presenters it does make sense to deviate from it as little as possible. The first episode was a resoundingly “OK, I guess”, but there was certainly potential. The old show took a while to get its motor running after all. Whether this’ll be “that one weird series” or “a new beginning” could well become more apparent closer to the end.