If there is one lesson to be learned in 2016, it is that white men in media have a free pass to fail upward with impunity. Corey Lewandowski assaulted a reporter and got a job at CNN; Roger Ailes sexually harassed women at Fox News for decades and got a position as a senior strategist for Donald Trump’s campaign. And our president-elect himself… well. It appears that we have a truly extraordinary capacity for forgiveness.
For Jeremy Clarkson, who physically and verbally assaulted a BBC producer and was subsequently let go from the massively popular show “Top Gear,” forgiveness comes in the form of a lush upgrade: “The Grand Tour,” from Amazon Studios, which preserves nearly everything about the BBC show’s gearhead enthusiasm, international adventuring, and swaggering masculinity.
The first episode places them in America, which gives Clarkson and his perpetual costars Richard Hammond and James May plenty of opportunities to quarrel good-naturedly about the relative merits of the U.K. and the U.S. with their fiercely patriotic audience. (To their credit, the audience has absolutely no patience for Clarkson’s declaration that the Royal Air Force is a finer institution than the U.S. Air Force, leading to a staged but funny bit where the trio has to hide behind their table as the audience chants “U! S! A!”) Their desert studio is extravagant and beautiful, furnished like a conqueror’s bivouac with leather camp chairs, vintage luggage, and Oriental rugs. (The giant traveling tent, as they call it, will be touring the world with the hosts — Johannesburg, Scotland, Dubai.) And the cinematography is remarkable; “The Grand Tour” is filmed in 4K, or Ultra HD, making for wide shots of shiny cars drifting effortlessly over terrain or tarmac that are positively bursting with color and movement.
But at least at first, much of “The Grand Tour” is devoted to reveling in the fruits of bad behavior. Clarkson first appears in the pilot leaving London surrounded by controversy, demonstrated through snippets of news reports and interviews played in the background as he solemnly steps into a black cab. He flies to LAX, where he picks up a blue Mustang Rocket in the airport’s parking lot, and as he starts driving east, he’s joined by Hammond and May, in red and white Rockets of their own.
The music turns from somber to upbeat, a cover of “I Can See Clearly Now,” as the three cars meet up and pass with a whole convoy of bizarre and fascinating vehicles, arrayed in a formation not unlike the war party in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” They come to the stage where the band is playing, labeled with a big “BURNING VAN” banner; a formation of fighter jets sweeps overhead in the endlessly blue sky. If it started as a dark night of the soul, it ends a victory lap. Hammond introduces Clarkson with, “He’s basically a shaved ape in a shirt.” Clarkson picks it up with his first line to the camera in the whole show: “It’s very unlikely I’m going to be fired now, because we’re on the Internet. Which means I could pleasure a horse.”
When it comes to the cars, “The Grand Tour” delivers gearhead porn in spades, fondling steering wheels and gearshifts with expert grace. Clarkson, Hammond, and May’s love for machinery — and what human machinery indicates, which is adventure and expansiveness — is still present, pure, and appealing, even with the shift in networks and formats.
But “The Grand Tour” doesn’t just sell cars, or the love of cars. It is also a celebration of the car — the pinnacle of human ingenuity, as far as this show is concerned — as a tool used to flatten, mold, and indeed, dominate the world. “The Grand Tour,” like the trio’s “Top Gear,” spans the world and crosses all available terrains. In the montage teasing the rest of this season, there are a not-insignificant number of explosions, and at least one instance where machine-gun fire strafes the sides of the drivers’ cars.
“The Grand Tour” is about a certain interpretation of strength — one that interprets logic or sensitivity as just advanced iterations of weakness, subordinate to the power and fire of machines and might. Its ethos is also wrapped up in Clarkson’s glee at having escaped punishment, and in his mockery of the Prius and the bicycle for not being devoted to consuming fossil fuels as quickly and loudly as possible. The show is an embodiment of the self-righteousness of wrongheadedness. One is reminded of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy’s” Ford Prefect, an alien who tried to pass on Earth by taking a name from what he thought was the dominant species.
Literature isn’t far from Clarkson’s mind, either. While complaining about the “boring” feel of a rather nice-looking white Porsche, he says to Hammond: “It was like being stuck in a Victorian women’s novel.”
There is something to marvel at in this sentence. It cannot be questioned without belying that by doing so, you care — about women, about novels, about Victoriana, all of which are just about feelings, while cars are about doings. Though this is beside the point, I doubt that Clarkson has ever read a tempestuous Gothic novel, which of course would imply a female audience anyway; novels began as a female art form. Or is he here to say that a Victorian novel written by a man would be less boring? (Students slogging through “Oliver Twist” might disagree.)
No, the important thing in the sentence is that Clarkson can use it to make someone feel bad — bad, or hurt, or at least provoked. It is just a method of establishing strength. What matters is the engine on the road — speed and strength traversing the world — and awing those who cannot afford it with expensive cars and exotic locales. Never mind that the more “The Grand Tour’s” drivers drive, the less exotic world there is left to drive through; never mind that on the other side of remaking the world is the responsibility of taking stewardship over it.