Thoughts on The Grand Tour, Top Gear, and the state of Automotive Television

This started out as a pretty simple facebook thing, but then it got… long. Raise your hand if you’re surprised.

No one? Fuck. Well, I am who I am.

Ok, so first off, here’s a bit of automotive history – Clarkson on the History of Japanese Cars:

Opening with the bombing of Hiroshima may be a tad insensitive, but it is historically accurate. So, I’ll allow it.

BUT.

This is pretty much the definition of what’s wrong with The Grand Tour. I’ve kept my mouth shut to this point – the car guys (and girls) love it so far but I’m having the same misgivings as I had with the last few seasons of TopGear under Clarkson, May, and Hammond.

And, because I am who I am, I’m going to tell you why. At length. Buckle up, buttercup.

So, did you watch that bit on youtube? Yeah, the image quality isn’t great, but he’s telling a story. Unlike the last ten years, where history has been the domain of James May – That’s fine, May’s a serious historian, and tinkerer, but Clarkson also has a huge (or had, at least) interest in histry. And that’s basically been gone for five years now. He just shouts. He’s the Trump of the automotive world. SHOUT THINGS! REACT TO PEOPLE! SHOUT MORE THINGS! LISTEN TO THE CHEERS!

And that’s the problem.

The Grand Tour isn’t thoughtful in the way TopGear has always been. They used to interview people, now, they “kill” them. They used to test cars, now they slide them. They used to have adventures. Now, they go to other countries and irritate people.

Now, they were already doing that on BBC TopGear. But the BBC was obviously keeping Clarkson in line.

But Clarkson is running the asylum now. And it’s worse for it.

The other side of things, is that the Grand Tour is fully aimed at the US market. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a different market, and it’s one that doesn’t necessarily appreciate what TopGear used to do really well – Be British.

It’s a shame. The British stoicism brought something to the show that you wouldn’t get elsewhere. Yes, Clarkson is an ass (and he really is) but he’s turned it up to eleven now, and it’s very obviously Spiderman 3 syndrome: “If one villian makes a good story, then four villians will kill them!” Except it doesn’t does it? It just irritates, and suddenly, there’s not enough time for the depth, and thoughtfulness that had TopGear appealing to a lot more than car people (My mom used to watch TopGear, because it was, actually, entertaining, beyond the cars).

At the same time, TopGear (the new one) has gotten a bad rap. Matt LeBlanc, especially, is a fantastic presenter. He’s got exactly the right tone and presence on screen for it. Chris Evans, especially, got pummelled for his style in teh first two episodes, but after that, he quieted down a lot and started to deveop his own voice, rather that shouty Clarkson imitation. I feel bad for Evans, I really do. He was set up to fail on this one, because they were going to need a scapegoat for lower ratings when TopGear came back. But the show itself, beyond the fanboi “THERE’S NO TOP GEAR WITHOUT CLARKSON” shit, has actually been pretty good. In fact, if you watch it back to back with The Grand Tour you start to see…

That Clarkson and crew really haven’t done anything different with The Grand Tour, except try to be… more irritating. Again, I think Clarkson got a lot of help, and was really kept from doing the truly stupid stuff, by the BBC. And at the same time, Clarkson (and May, and Hammond) did bring something very special to TopGear.

And the thing is, fanbois, that’s never coming back.

Ever.

In fact, it hasn’t been there for the last two or three years at TopGear, anyway.

The Grand Tour is what Clarkson wants to make. And it’s inferior. Top Gear is what BBC needs to make, because the franchise makes money for them, and, it’s currently inferior. But they’ve got a good cast and they’re playing with how they do things – they’re evolving.

Clarkson’s Grand Tour, however, is a dinosaur. I wouldn’t expect it to last long, unfortunately.

Just from what I’ve seen on social media, there was massive buzz about Episode 1, huge interest in Episode 2, and no one has said a word about Episodes 3, 4, and 5. There’s good reason for that. The show is lackluster at best. It’s a shadow of its former (Say, Top Gear Season 15 or so) glory. Now, that said, the latest episode (ep 5) has been pretty good, all in all. They got back to what they’re good at, a bit. Still fell back onto “how funny is it that we’re British and we don’t understand foreign cultures?” (ie. irritate the locals) but still, they were actually back on form.

This whole “kill the famous guests” thing has to fucking go though. It’s so old and played out, already. Just. Stop.

But all the fanboi’s care about is that things never change. And that’s a problem inherent in the automotive community, not just in terms of Top Gear: “If it’s not my way, it’s shit”.

Literally none of the fanboi’s could see that we won, overall.

Yeah, Clarkson, May, and Hammond? THey left (a stagnant) Top Gear.

But Top Gear continues.

They started Grand Tour.

At the same time, in the interim, we got a revival of Fifth Gear online, and we saw a huge growth in really solid youtubers doing good things with cars – Matt Farah and the Smoking Tire, Chris Harris, Might Car Mods, Roadkill, Petrolicious, /Drive, Regular Car Reviews, and the list goes on.

And these guys, they all have something going on? Why? Because they’re doing something different, something new, and it’s interesting.

As an aggregate? We totally won. I mean, we REALLY won. We went from one real car/lifestyle show, to dozens, in any style you might like. And that’s awesome.

But no.

The Fanboi’s only want TopGear, circa season 21. Forever. And Ever. Because change is scary and they are scared, scared little menboys.

Which means we’re more likely to just get more of the same, than what the boys are really good at, which is telling interesting stories around cars, not just around tire smoke. And that’s a shame. But it does keep the dollars coming in, and the cameras rolling. So, I’m torn. But I don’t look forward to The Grand Tour. I watch it because it’s there. I used to really look forward to Top Gear (and I am looking forward to seeing where the next season of new Top Gear goes, as well, with LeBlanc at the helm).

Embrace the new. It’s pretty awesome. And you still have your thing.

Car People on Car Shows

This started as a quick facebook comment and then became more talky. So, it goes here. We’ve all (whether we’re car fans or not) seen the Clarkson suspension, which appears to be due to him hitting? Attempting to hit? A producer. Now, in any other business, you attempt to hit your boss or manager, you get fired. Period. But this is TV, and Clarkson’s face makes money. So, who knows what’s going to happen.

But.

I disagree whole-heartedly with the notion that “without Clarkson, there is no TopGear”.

I would agree that, without Clarkson, there is no TopGear as we have come to know it. But, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. TopGear has become… stale. They’re predictable, and… yeah. Stale is the word. It’s still entertaining, I still adore the “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” bits, but the cars? There’s only so much “million pound” metal I can watch. I noticed a little while back, the slower cars on the test track now? 1m21s or so. That’s the SLOW stuff. It used to be that was the one or two top cars. But the top twenty or so now, are under 1m20s on the track. It’s cool they exist but… yeah, boring.

Even the fun, “here’s $1000, go buy a car and do challenges” have started to fade away in favor of “go pick a car and do challenges”. The last few of those have been $100,000 cars and trucks. Again… less fun. And the less said about the “build an ambulance” sketch the better. The cheaper, old car stuff was more fun and felt more honest.

But a lot are saying, with the latest fiasco, that if Clarkson is gone then TopGear is done.

I disagree. But I think it’ll change. And maybe it’s time for that. There’s no doubt that the formula has worked: for nearly fifteen years now, in fact. And it prints money for Clarkson, and the BBC. (and yes, Hammond and May, too). But the BBC is a business, and it will rarely rock the boat. And Clarkson is… Clarkson. He’s a big fan of being who he is, and rich. So, he’s not going to do anything different, take a chance.

Hammond and May though both have a lot of side projects, on TV, and in the world. May, especially, is a man of huge and varied interests. His Toys series, and “Cars of the People” are fantastic, and involve a lot of history, something that used to be baked into TG, but has become less and less so the last three or four seasons.

And they look bored most of the time. Inevitably, May gets to be eccentric, and Hammond gets abandoned somewhere (because he’s the only physically willing one out there). And I gotta say, the bit where Hammond was imitating May and Clarkson, and throwing knives at the dolls he made of them rang… at least a little true.

I think May and Hammond are bored with the current format. And I don’t blame them. It’s the Clarkson show for sure. But TopGear wasn’t that, until the last few years.

So, If the beeb gives Clarkson the boot (and they won’t, is my guess), things will change. But I don’t think TopGear ends, at that point. The UK has plenty of big, car-oriented personalities to choose from.

Me? My top pick to replace Clarkson is Jay Kay.

I think I’ll tag this “first world news”. It’s the closest I get to celebrity gossip.