The boys are back and they’re better than ever. That’s the general consensus from the media after Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May’s first episode of The Grand Tour hit Amazon Prime last Thursday evening. In fact, it seems the only one who thought The Grand Tour wasn’t grand at all was Will Gompertz, the arts and entertainment editor for a little network called the BBC.
Will Gompertz is wrong. The Grand Tour is good, great, and indeed, grand. The stale letdown that was the 23rd season of the BBC’s Top Gear was a tough pill to swallow (though maybe with the dismissal of that shouty ginger and the promotion of Matt LeBlanc, things will be better next year). Nonetheless, fans of what Top Gear was under Clarkson, Hammond and May’s stewardship—and executive producer Andy Wilman—dutifully watched it, including all of us at The Drive. After patiently waiting for the dust from Clarkson’s punch heard-round-the-world to settle, rejoicing when Amazon breathed new life into the trio, devouring any scrap of news from the sets of the new, absurdly well-funded program, we hoped The Grand Tour would continue where Top Gear had abruptly left off.
And it literally did. The premiere's main segment pitted the Holy Trinity of hypercars against one another. You know, the McLaren P1 versus the Ferrari LaFerrari versus the Porsche 918? The very segment that was being shot when Clarkson clocked the production assistant over lunch and ruined everything? It finally came to fruition...and it was goddamn glorious.
It was everything we wanted: to watch our three beloved presenters shred rubber on beloved hypercars around a circuit. And—spoiler alert—gasp when Clarkson lost a wager that the P1 was ultimately the best car, resulting in having his house blown up by the other two chuckleheads. There was something comforting and familiar about watching the gents banter about in pit lane and slip back into their familiar rapport. It felt like coming home again after a long time away.
While The Grand Tour didn’t introduce anything revolutionary or groundbreaking—there’s still a test track, still a tame racing driver, still a leader board for cars—that’s okay. Some of the comedic bits felt a touch forced at times, a slight too on-the-nose (the Celebrity Brain Crash segment chief among them), but that’s also fine. There were plenty of genuine laugh-out-loud moments; besides, the hosts still need a little leeway to find their footing again, even though they’ve been at this for 23 years. And they’ve proven they’re not going to be sidelined any time soon.
Which brings me to the one nagging thought that nipped at my brain while watching: By turning Clarkson’s firing and the subsequent demise of Top Gear into a running joke, they’ve effectively cemented the idea that it can’t happen again; that Amazon is in for the long haul. And that’s a bit of a problem.
For me, part of what made Top Gear so fun and engaging was that I felt like I was on the trio’s side as they continuously brushed up against their uptight employers. They were regularly on thin ice with their BBC bosses for various antics and stunts, and—whether or not you think making a joke about “slopes” in Vietnam was appropriate—you were left hoping the latest kerfuffle wouldn’t be the one to get them all sacked. Despite being a bunch of antagonizing protagonists, our trio always felt like the underdogs, up against the big, bad BBC. And you always rooted for them to emerge victorious whenever a scandal broke.
Until Clarkson mucked it all up by slugging a producer. Suddenly, they were fallible. But now, they’ve been rescued by Amazon; now, from their Internet perch, they’re free to take thinly-veiled shots at their erstwhile employer, the franchise that made them household names, even the ridiculous events that led to the Top Gear shakeup.
But by pointing and laughing at it so much, it makes them look like they think they’re invincible. They’ve been bailed out and Amazon has sunk so much money into them and this reinvigoration, it seems like they can do no wrong. They’ve got a safety net allowing them to do and say anything.
While I hope they'll use that freedom in an advantageous way, to push the boundaries of marvelous filmmaking and stupendous endeavors (instead of, say, slighting an entire South American nation with a suspiciously specific number plate) I can’t help but be a little bummed that this little bit of subversive magic hasn't made it over to The Grand Tour along with the hosts.
But above all else, I’m still forever a fan. I’m still not making plans for the next 11 Thursday nights, so I can get my The Grand Tour fix. They’re still the lads and this is still our little motoring show. I can’t wait to see where they take us.