Review: The All-New ‘Top Gear’
The first new episode of Top Gear (technically episode one of series/season 23) has finally aired in the UK and the US. The internet, at least its loudest voices, seems to have hated it and even went so far as to call it boring. Was it really that bad, though? I knew this new episode was going to be one of the most talked-about programs of Memorial Day Weekend, so I tuned in with the rest of America to see what the fuss is all about.
You can check out our blow-by-blow recap below, or just check out the review.
The first episode started off with the traditional theme music and logo display, so that at the very least is the same. Chris Evans (not that one) welcomed everyone to the show, quickly introduced Matt LeBlanc as the first American host of the show, and then got right to the first segment.
— Top Gear BBCAmerica (@TopGear_BBCA) May 31, 2016
The first segment involved Chris Evans driving the Dodge Viper ACR in the United States at the famed US Naval Air Station Fallon, known better by its nickname, Top Gun. I say driving instead of reviewing because Evans told us a lot about how the car was engineered, but didn’t really tell us what he actually thought about driving the car.
After the Viper had its time on the track with Evans, another Top Gear host popped out of the woodwork. Legendary driver Sabine Schmitz was behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Corvette Z06, and both drivers had a Top Gun pilot with them to take these cars back out on the track for the car equivalent of a dogfight. There was some fancy maneuvering and driving, and we actually got one sentence of a review from Schmitz when she called the ‘Vette a “piece of sh*t” because she hated the suspension. Evans won the dogfight, because of course he did, but I think Schmitz wins for best driving because she managed to make her Top Gun pilot, who is used to flying in fighter jets, car sick.
The Stig made an appearance here to take the Dodge Viper ACR to the Top Gear track for its official Power Lap Time (which clocked in at 01:15.1).
Back in the studio, LeBlanc was quick to point out that Schmitz also made Evans sick while driving him, but that segment was held back for another day. The next segment shown was a kickoff of the US vs UK race that featured Robin Reliant 3-wheelers decked out for each country. Evans and LeBlanc drove from London to Blackpool to kick off the competition, but curiously enough it was not a race. That’s right, you watched them drive at a leisurely pace to the seaside. LeBlanc’s car had major trouble and actually rode on a flatbed truck most of the way (but managed to make it into town on its own three wheels). There were a few jokes cracked that I may have half-chuckled at, but this segment deserves no more time than I have already given it.
From that segment, we went to the celebrity portion of the episode. Gordon Ramsay and Jesse Eisenberg sat down with Chris Evans to talk about their cars. Eisenberg isn’t very committed to car culture, but Gordon Ramsay is and he was proud to show off his bright red LaFerrari. He also managed to brag about his preorder of a roofless LaFerrari Spider that Ferrari is only making 150 of. He even showed off the key in a presentation box sent to him by the automaker. It should come as no surprise, then, that car-savvy Ramsay handily beat Eisenberg on the new track in Top Gear‘s new rally car.
After the celebrity segment, it was time for LeBlanc to have the spotlight all to himself. He drove an Ariel Nomad in an arid desert landscape, and managed to both describe the car and offer an opinion. Chris Evans should watch this segment to know what his future ones should look like. This segment also featured racing, where LeBlanc was trying to escape a group of ‘paparazzi’ trying to get his photo using various vehicles. This segment really allowed him to show off his driving skills, and also gave us another glimpse of the Stig as he helped LeBlanc make his final escape.
After another break in the studio, the show returned to Blackpool for more of the US vs UK challenge. The mayor of Blackpool, decked out in all his mayoral glory, introduced three challenges that pitted LeBlanc in a Willys Jeep against Evans in a retro military Land Rover.
The three challenges were a speed test, won by the more powerful Jeep, a tug of war game (which ended in a draw), and a drag race (won by team USA). The tug of war featured a rugby team helping out the UK side and an American football team pulling with Team USA. The drag race, however, was full of puns, with the vehicles dragging ice cream trucks from the water and picking up drag queens for a ride. The important thing to note is that Chris Evans can actually lose.
The show finished with the two off road vehicles competing in a race in the Lake District (which we thankfully didn’t have to see them drive to) to the top of Muncaster Fell while hauling the Reliant vehicles. Team UK won, but only after Chris Evans decided to rip a piece off of his Reliant to take to the finish line, instead of actually hauling the whole car. Evans admitted to cheating, but he still claimed the win for the UK.
What Happened | Our Review
This is the first episode of a brand new era for Top Gear, so not everything was going to be perfect. All in all, I think the show has true potential. There were some things I really missed about the old Top Gear, but some things I found to be better, or at least have the potential for being better.
One of the big things that got me was we only saw three of the new Top Gear hosts this episode, plus the venerable Stig. You would have thought that after the big reveal of six hosts months ago, all six would have made an appearance this episode, even if just in an introductory segment. I get that Chris Evans is the ringleader, like Jeremy Clarkson before him, but this felt more like he was the boss, when Clarkson made it feel more like he was the spokesman. Chris Evans is the king of Top Gear, and it doesn’t look like he’ll be letting you forget that.
Chris Evans being the star of this show could really help it or hurt it. Evans knows how to host a show, and he happens to know his way around a car. However, all of his segments, from the opening Top Gear challenge to the celebrity portion, felt like commercials. I get that Ramsay is excited for his new supercar, but turning from his current car (which had a funny story involving his daughter) to the extended discussion of his latest order was very heavy-handed. His inability to say anything negative about the Viper was very telling, as that model is notoriously difficult, and that fickleness should have been at least mentioned. If he said anything negative, it was always turned into a positive as if he and the Viper were being interviewed for a job.
My favorite parts of the episode were Matt LeBlanc and Sabine Schmitz behind the wheel. Schmitz gave her actual opinion of the Corvette she was driving when the camera actually focused on her, and she was a dynamic driver. Matt LeBlanc was stiff and scripted in the studio, but his solo segment really let him shine, both in terms of humor and driving skill. He knew what he was doing behind the wheel of the Ariel Nomad, and while the car chase segment was a bit contrived, Top Gear has always been a bit campy so it’s hard to criticize it too badly. LeBlanc also managed to give an honest impression of the vehicle, criticizing how hard it is to enter, its two-wheel drive, and lack of protection from the body when driving through water.
I do miss some of the joking between Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond. The relationship between Evans and LeBlanc seemed cordial at best. However, that being said, I didn’t miss some of the more off color humor that had made it into some of the more recent series of Top Gear. I’m not saying that I couldn’t handle what was being said, but it seemed at times as if the old Top Gear hosts caused controversy just for the publicity it generated instead of focusing on the cars.
Hopefully in the future Chris Evans will loosen his grip on the reins and let the true car experts on his team shine and the program as a whole excel. His first competition ended with him cheating to take the glory away from his costar, so I’m not sure if that will happen anytime soon.
What Happened | Our Review
- Rebecca BernardEditor
A Dayton native, Rebecca got her start blogging at the curiously named Harlac's Tongue while studying abroad in the UK. She loves tooling around town with her Ford Focus named Jerome to the song they're playing on the radio. On any given weekend, you can find her with her camera at area festivals, concerts, and car shows, shopping at flea markets, or taking an adventure on the open road. See more articles by Rebecca.