Based on the first episode, Top Gear deserves a second chance after last year’s spluttering start.
It’s no secret that last year’s Top Gear reboot was an unmitigated disaster. With motormouth Chris Evans at the helm, the series was universally panned by critics, and the declining ratings were a far cry from Top Gear’s prime days. Many still seemed sceptical about the new series, but we’ve been quietly confident that it will put the show back on track. It won’t be airing in America until later this week, but has already been shown in the UK – and it was well worth the wait. Be aware that this article contains spoilers if you’re still waiting to watch it on BBC America.
After being confined to the background last year, newcomers Chris Harris and Rory Reid have been promoted as co-hosts alongside Matt LeBlanc, and it’s made a considerable difference to the team dynamics. Everyone seemed more relaxed and comfortable in their roles compared to last year, while Harris and Reid were finally given a chance to shine. No mention was made of Chris Evans and his departure from the show, but that’s probably for the best. Even the slick and more modern-looking new studio is an improvement over last year. Compared to the overproduced bombast of The Grand Tour, the series opener of Top Gear was refreshingly restrained, with a near-perfect blend of cars and comedy.
The show kicked off with a riveting road test of the Ferrari FXX K, a track car that’s so special you need to be invited to drive it. Clearly there was only one man for the job – only Chris Harris could make drifting a feisty 1,036-HP car look easy. Not since the days of Tiff Needell has Top Gear had a presenter with such impeccable skill behind the wheel of a car. It was superbly shot as you would expect in a Top Gear review, and you got a sense that Harris felt genuinely honored to be driving the FXX K which made his enthusiasm very infectious. The central challenge admittedly treaded on familiar ground, placing the presenters in cheap cars with high mileages and seeing what happens in the ensuing road trip.
This was the first time we’ve seen a film with LeBlanc, Reid and Harris working together, though, and the trio seemed to have natural on-screen chemistry and looked like they were genuinely having a great time messing around. There were some genuine laugh-out-loud moments too – the look of horror on Harris’ face when he slammed into the back of LeBlanc’s Mercedes taxi was priceless. Unlike some challenges in The Grand Tour which were sometimes a bit aimless, this one had a genuine purpose. The team was tasked to race to a rocket launch site in Kazakhstan in used cars that had done at least 477,710 miles - the distance to the moon and back.
Elsewhere, the ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’ segment has had a much-needed revamp. Appropriately renamed to ‘Star in a Reasonably Fast Car,’ celebrities now have to set a lap time in a Toyota 86 as previous rumors suggested. The rallycross circuit in the last series has been scrapped, and in its place was the classic circuit we know and love. Replacing the dull Vauxhall Astra with a lively rear-wheel drive car could be a masterstroke. With more opportunities to get the car sideways (it rains a lot in England after all), this normally skippable segment should prove entertaining in the long run.
Of course, there was still room for improvement. The trio still don’t seem wholly comfortable in the studio, which made some of the segments a tad stilted, but this should improve over time as they settle in. Some jokes fell flat, and introducing the celebrity near the start and having them sit in during other segments seemed awkward. It’s going to take time before the show returns to its former glory, but this was a promising start to the series and a vast improvement over last year's spluttering start. Top Gear is now in safe hands, and has the potential to surpass The Grand Tour's uneven first series.