The popular opinion, thus far, is that the new Top Gear was awful. Not to be contrarian just for the sake of generating website traffic, but I liked it. I took some time to prepare this, letting our peers rant about how much it sucked. It didn’t. Hear me out. It’s new, and new things are difficult. Sure the formula is much older: loud host shouts about some cool stuff that will soon happen, introduces some other people that will assist him in shouting, those people do cool things in cars, interview someone(s) famous who drive a car and then leans in to hear their time, more cool things happen in cars, and you end on a bombshell. I’m here to say that, generally speaking, it still works with the new cast.
On Chris Evans
I’ll take on the gorilla in the room (too soon?) Chris Evans isn’t great. News flash, this isn’t breaking any ground I know. He’s a radio guy getting used to being on TV. I was lucky enough to be in the audience for the filming of the very first episode of Top Gear USA. There are a lot of parallels to TG UK season 23; same formula, different people.
Lead host Adam Carolla, himself a radio-turned-TV guy had to take the Clarkson role and make it his own. Plucky Tanner Foust was sort of the Hammond character, more diminutive in stature, but excitable, and one hell of a driver. Eric Stromer—a fairly unknown dude who made what fame he had from a few home improvement shows—played the less-interesting-than-May third character. Wait, you thought I meant the History channel version? No, this was the never-seen-by-the-public NBC version! I should have stated that up front? Oh well.
My point is—and if you read my review of the original NBC TG version you’ll understand this—the formula was there, but the chemistry was not. The same thing happened with the History channel version when Tanner remained but was joined by a different funny guy and a bearded chap.
Chemistry is made, not created.
Chris Evans was always a likeable guy on the OG Top Gear. He was clearly a car guy, albeit a car guy who favored one make and one paint color for his cars. Personally I happen to love both Ferraris and white cars, so I was on board with this schtick from the beginning. But it was clear that he loved cars, and he was relaxed and enjoyable, even funny, as the SIARPC, and again later when May visited his house. He’s got a ridiculous amount of pressure on him with the new series. So give the guy a break, ignore all the crazy Brit tabloids, because even if they are true, worst case he’s a crazy perfectionist like Clarkson was. Give him time to gain his confidence, it’ll either come and he’ll succeed, or it won’t and the BBC will make a change. There are others hosting this show.
How You Doin?
I’ll admit, I already had a bit of a man crush on
Joey Tribbiani Matt LeBlanc. I always found his Friends character to be one of the more genuine and entertaining of the bunch. No pretense, he was just a guy. he liked beer, women, and sandwiches. Not necessarily in that order. And LeBlanc as a guest on Top Gear was sublime. He was funny, knowledgeable, and a ridiculously good driver. He was a natural choice for the Top Gear host role and he nailed it. No, he wasn’t perfect, but neither were May or Hammond when they joined the big oaf on stage for the first time. He showed confidence, and that’s what you need. As a viewer, you need to believe that this guy know his shit and can handle a car. All of that came across on camera and I can’t wait to see him on future episodes.
One of the biggest reasons I’m optimistic, and believe this venture will succeed, is because of the supporting cast. Top Gear has what it never had before, a deep bench. Previously, it was just Clarkson, Hammond and May, and that’s all we needed. But with Evans finding his way, it’s time to unleash the backups. Sabine’s segment in episode one felt a little forced, although I loved hearing her flub the Top Gun quotes and thought she seemed to genuinely be having a good time. It’s not all that believable that Evans out-drove her in the Viper, I get the sense that she could have been in a Chevy Volt and still got missile lock on him at the wheel of the Viper ACR. Regardless, she already has Top Gear credibility, having gone toe-to-toe with Jeremy in other seasons, and I think she’ll be a great co-host this year.
BBC was smart to lock on Chris Harris as well. Nobody reading this needs to hear about his bonafides from me. Just head to YouTube, he’s fantastic. F1 expert Eddie Jordan and motoring journalist Rory Reid round out the crew, and we didn’t even get to see them (or Harris) on episode one. It’s too much? Not sure, I never felt like Fifth Gear had too many hosts, so we’ll see. As others have said, Extra Gear was great and if that is any indication of how Harris and Reid will do, we’re in for some great segments this season. It almost has a Mythbusters cast feel to it (well, not the last season or so, you get the drift).
Tired of the two main dudes, here’s some other folks to entertain you!
Episode one could easily have taken place last season with the three amigos. It was written and produced in the same manner—and at the same level of quality—as anything we’ve seen prior to season 23. Top Gun themed Viper vs. Vette with guns? Fantastic. USA vs. UK military vehicles? Bingo. Cool off-road Ariel Nomad getting chased by paparazzi? Hell yes. And in my opinion it all worked quite well. But just. Evans and LeBlanc had some genuine moments together. And as I said above, it should only improve. If they are professionals, they’ll find some common ground, build enough chemistry to get through these challenges while actually entertaining us. I legitimately laughed and also got that goosebumpy feeling when they switch to a slow-mo shot that I got in season 22 and prior. If I have any advice, don’t change anything. We’re all getting that awkward feeling seeing other people in roles we knew Jeremy, James, and Richard in for all those years. As I said, the formula wasn’t broken. If anything, it got a little repetitive seeing the same three blokes getting challenged every week. Now we’ve got a new crew to cheer for.
Stars in Cars
Oye, now this bit was rough. Two famous people sat on a couch with no measurable connection to each other than perhaps Jesse Eisenberg eats food and Gordon Ramsay makes it. It felt forced, scripted, and was just awkward. Much like how this segment came across on season one of History Channel’s Top Gear USA (NBC Top Gear had Hasselhoff and it was actually really good) this one sucked. So they’ll either take a second look at it and try to improve it (Evans interviews people on the radio for a living, right?) or they’ll ditch it like History (and The Grand Tour likely) did.
I liked it. I really, honestly, liked it. I got some laughs. I got some goosebumps. I cringed a few times, but I genuinely liked it. It seems to be the “in” thing to bash season 23, and Evans in particular. But I’m excited. It can only improve, and as the chemistry continues to grow, and we get a look at that deep bench of co-presenters, we’re going to have a lot to like. Mark my words, the new Top Gear UK will return to glory. Personally, I hope Evans is along for the ride.
But if he’s not, Joey’s there for us. And Sabine. And the other Chris. And Rory. And Eddie. Bring it on. I don’t have BBC America, but I bought a season pass on Amazon. Yes, I realize that’s incredibly ironic.