It was all hands to the petrolhead pump as the BBC tried to erase memories of last year’s not-wholly successful Top Gear reboot and prove there was indeed Life After Jeremy for its flagship franchise. But could newly promoted host-in-chief Matt LeBlanc rebuild from scratch a series which, with the hyperactive Chris Evans behind the wheel, had slalomed off a cliff and burst into flames?
The answer, judging from the first of seven new episodes, is a qualified “yes”. LeBlanc’s presenting remains a work in progress – he can come across intensely uncomfortable interacting with non A-listers. However, the elevation of matey muckers Rory Reid and Chris Harris to full-time sidekicks brought flashes of the Jeremy Clarkson-era spark. It wasn’t slick and it wasn’t funny – but it did feel very Top Gear.
True, they haven’t quite recaptured the old “three blokes bumbling about in cars” chemistry – LeBlanc, for one thing, is far too tanned and glamorous to bumble like a natural. Nonetheless, a road trip to Kazakhstan achieved full “proper lark” status. And the car bits felt like an integral component: a crucial distinction from Jezza and chums’ deafening Grand Tour (a show that secretly wants to be a Transformers movie).
Plus, without Chris Evans yelling at you constantly, it was all suddenly so watchable. It would seem official then – Top Gear is back, with a lot more miles left on the clock than anyone suspected when it spun into the hard shoulder 12 months ago. Here is the rest of what we learned.
The hosts appear to not completely hate one another
It wasn’t the cars or the exotic locales that made Jezza-era Top Gear essential viewing. What attracted audiences was the grumpy old men zing between Clarkson, Hammond and May. Obviously, a millionaire super-star like Matt LeBlanc was never going to hit it off straight away with unknowns such as Rory Reid and Chris Harris. In the studio especially, their back and forths were occasionally strained.
However, they looked reasonably comfortable in one another’s company. There was certainly none of the teeth-grinding or oneupmanship that marred the Evans-LeBlanc double act last year. Harris and Reid are clearly thrilled just to be on telly and their enthusiasm appears to have penetrated LeBlanc’s celebrity forcefield. Give it a few weeks and they could become a real team.
Have we got our new Captain Slow and Hamster Hammond?
The sidekicks have grasped that their job is not to outshine LeBlanc but to serve up amusing caricatures of themselves. Reid has embraced the Captain Slow role of comic relief. He nerdily pointed out continuity mistakes from car scenes in classic films (what was that Eighties Renault doing in Withnail and I etc etc) and reeled off pointless facts about Kazakhstan during the trek across the Steppe.
Harris, meanwhile, has the makings of the new Richard Hammond – eager, a bit naive and with an annoying laugh. The wheel is no danger of being reinvented. But compared to last year’s scrum of rotating presenters, it works.
Who needs Jeremy Clarkson when you have Joey from Friends?
Jeremy Clarkson bumbled and grumbled his way to petrolhead immortality. LeBlanc, in contrast, comes to us in the suspiciously familiar guise of likeable lunk. His approach succeeds because, after 20 years of Friends re-runs, we already feel comfortable in the presence of Matt’s inner Joey Tribbiani. For Top Gear he has essentially put that character in the microwave for 60 seconds and – bing! – served it piping hot.
They didn’t overdo the gimmicks
With Evans at the helm last year, there was a concerted effort to rip up the Top Gear rulebook and start from scratch. Out went Star in a Reasonably Priced Car (replaced by a pointless motocross sequence), in came a rotating line-up of presenters.
This time, in contrast, the producers have taken a less-is-more approach. Star in a Reasonably Priced Car has been resurrected more or less – albeit with a fancy touring motor instead of the old hatchback (down-to-earth actor James McAvoy was the perfect first guinea pig).
Elsewhere, it was a case of as you were. The hosts nattered in the studio, then we cut to the traditional pre-recorded segments (the two-parter in Kazakhstan and a review by Harris of a new £2 million Ferrari). Compared to the Grand Tour’s exhausting three-ring circus – Celebrity Braincrash, Conversation Street etc – the simplicity was a blessing.
The road trip was the perfect blend of comedy and documentary
The team was racing to a rocket launch site in Kazakhstan in bangers that had driven the equivalent of the distance between earth and the moon. All a bit high concept for a Sunday night – especially when LeBlanc got bizarrely misty eyed during his closing monologue about cars, technology and our debt to the space race.
Still, the actual trip was a hoot. They stopped to watch locals play polo with a dead goat, then dashed across stunning salt flats filmed in patented BBC “isn’t nature amaaazing?” fashion (all that was missing was David Attenborough narrating as Sigur Ros keened in the background). At such moments you were glad Jezza had been packed off to the internet. Whatever he might have had to say about goat-based Central Asian sports, you can be sure it would not have been flattering.
Out in the wilderness, the natural affinity between the three hosts also manifested. LeBlanc was more relaxed and Reid calmed down long enough to stop laughing/yelling and to speak in full sentences. The only let down was that, despite media reports to the contrary, we didn’t see LeBlanc dine on the local delicacy of horse penis. Won’t somebody think of the single entendres?
Did you catch their jab at The Grand Tour?
A low-level slagging match between Top Gear hosts past and present was kicked off last year when Jeremy Clarkson made a subtle reference to Chris Evans’s disastrous attempt at stepping into his shoes. “I’m trying to think of a metaphor for someone who's really tried their hardest with something and it hasn't worked,” he told the Grand Tour audience. Evans is obviously long gone but his former co-workers nonetheless gave as good as they got this week.
“A high-mileage Maserati…. a horrible idea,” said LeBlanc as he and the crew awaited the delivery of their to-the-moon-and-back bangers. This was surely a not-very-veiled dig at a notoriously dreary episode of The Grand Tour featuring clapped-out Italian luxury motors driven across France. A proper feud would be fun, wouldn’t it? Let’s make it happen, chaps.
Is it better than the Grand Tour?
After just one episode, it’s hard to predict how LeBlanc-era Top Gear will measure up to Amazon’s juggernaut. But the lack of bombast makes for an agreeable contrast. The Grand Tour wanted to blow you away from the outset, whereas the new TG seems confident of winning back its audience week by week. If LeBlanc can learn to walk and talk like an actual human being rather than a celebrity visiting from on-high, the series has every chance of upstaging its megabucks rival.
Either way, they need better joke writers
“Before that trip, I had no idea Kazakhstan was real,” said a deeply deadpan LeBlanc. “I thought it was one of those made up places like Timbuktu or Guernsey.” In an episode that got so much right, an insistence on dead-on-arrival gags sucked all the air from the studio. As the star of Joey, it’s a lesson you would think LeBlanc had already learned. If you can’t be funny, don’t try.