The new Top Gear landed on Sunday night. As the programme progressed, social media went into melt down and the show was widely slated. A number of reviews have also been incredibly brutal, dissecting each tiny piece of the show with incredible disdain. Previously, Chris Evans had said publicly that pulling less than 5 million viewers would be disappointing. Yesterday, official BBC figures showed 4.4 million people tuned in. So by Evans’ very own benchmark, the show is a failure. So just how bad is the rebooted Top Gear?
Actually, the show isn’t that bad. Probably the biggest surprise was the lack of alterations. Apart from an obvious change of personnel, with the aforementioned Evans joined by Matt Le Blanc in the studio, Top Gear rigidly followed the same format as the old show.
And it’s not hard to understand why. It was a winning formula and had been incredibly successful, so it could be argued that it would have been suicide to try and tinker with this proven methodology. We had an all action review of a low volume, niche supercar; an outlandish challenge that didn’t seem to make sense; Le Blanc was dispatched to Morocco to test the barmy Ariel Nomad; and we had two stars in a notsureoftheprice rallycross car. Yep, the biggest change of the lot is that celebrities now have to go off-road on their fast lap.
Replacing the triumvirate of Clarkson, Hammond and May was always likely to be an impossible job. Evans and co were on the back foot from the day the announcement was made. A rudimentary analysis of the public criticism reveals large swathes of Top Gear fans who didn’t want the new presenters to succeed, before a second was aired.
Whilst many lambasted shouty Evans and the (occasionally) wooden Le Blanc, the bigger own goal was the choice of features for the initial show. Top Gear needed a thunderous opening piece that would make a massive statement. Instead we got a semi-review of an aging, stripped out American muscle car which has little or no resonance with the home audience. Yes, the Dodge Viper ACR looked stunning and sounded ridiculously throaty. But since when has a Dodge Viper been the stuff of dreams in the UK or Ireland? Fine filler for a mid-series show; it just wasn’t attention grabbing stuff to make the audience think “this is legendary television”.
In the past, Top Gear challenges have been hit and miss. The challenges were always pointless, but tight scripting and the on-screen chemistry of the former three made the whole thing work. There was no obvious point or reason to drive a Reliant Robin to Blackpool, nor was any given. The whole opening gambit was pedestrian and not very engaging. The highlight was a random white van man shouting “How you doin?” at Joey LeBlanc. The second half of the challenge was much more entertaining. OK, the USA vs UK element was clichéd and a tad obvious, but executed rather well. Le Blanc and Willys Jeep vs Evans and trusty Landrover. It really underscored how banal the first half had been.
Stars and Cars saw Gordon Ramsay and Jesse Eisenberg talking about all things automotive. Ramsay is a total car nut and Evans was in his element doing the chat show host thing. The laps of the track have always been hit and miss. The segment has only been interesting when t a celebrity with no obvious talent posted an incredulously fast time or totaled it. We all remember Gambon for a reason. This time, it was largely par for the course stuff.
LeBlanc excelled when let loose on his own and freed from the script. His solo film, ripping around the lake beds of North Africa, showed that he was pretty handy behind the wheel and at his most natural when just talking. If anything, he needs to be given more of a free reign and could well develop in to an even bigger cult hero than he already is.
The 30 minute Extra Gear show seems to have been largely exempted from a public savaging. Fronted by Rory Reid and Chris Harris, it took a more in depth look at the cars featured on Top Gear. If Top Gear is pure entertainment, Extra Gear is the slightly nerdy, factual side kick. Chris Harris did a very Chris Harris review of the Nomad. Reid and Harris then discussed the motoring news. The standout element was a jocular roasting of comedian Chris Ramsay’s car history. If anything, Extra Gear was even more conservative than Top Gear, yet received fairly positive reviews.
So, Top Gear – turn on or turn off? Sunday’s show was a competent introduction to the new phase. No earthquakes, no radical change. In fact, the lack of a watercooler-worthy moment may have been the biggest failing. It was all a bit safe. The new team will need time to develop on screen chemistry and put their stamp on the format. All in all, it’s still the best hour of messing about in cars that you’ll see on telly.