Kurt Verlin
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‘The Grand Tour’: First Episode Review

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TGT drives through the desert

As a former “old Top Gear” viewer, The Grand Tour was everything I wanted it to be. I had tried not to raise my expectations and to remain only cautiously optimistic; it would have been far too easy to buy into the hype that had the internet abuzz since TGT was first announced and that has only increased with the downfall of the new Top Gear and with Amazon Prime’s own promotional efforts.

As fellow editor Rebecca Bernard pointed out yesterday, there has been cause to be cautious: what if fans were hyped because they expected TGT to be just like the old Top Gear they loved, but it turned out that the show had to be entirely different because of the threat of BBC legal action? And indeed, I thought it must have been different as well because that was what Jeremy Clarkson had seemed to hint throughout the year.

Turns out, The Grand Tour is very much like the old Top Gear. And I loved it.


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Introduction

Three Mustangs

The Grand Tour opens with a dejected-looking Jeremy Clarkson stepping out of what I assume is supposed to be the BBC offices in London. He takes a cab to the airport, in which the radio announces he would not be renewed for Top Gear, and flies over to the United States.

Once there, he steps into a Galpin Fisker Ford Mustang Rocket and the whole tone of the introduction changes. The radio forecasts sunshine and Hothouse Flower’s “I Can See Clearly Now” takes over the soundtrack. Richard Hammond and James May join Clarkson in Mustangs of their own and you get a sense of what they think of the change from Top Gear to TGT: goodbye England, hello America!

Then kicks off the expensive bit of the reportedly $2.4 million intro, where the trio take their Mustangs out on a stretch of desert and drive past several dozen vehicles, most of them exotics. They arrive at a Burning Man-style event where all three take the stage and proceed right away to insult each other with the same old jokes they repeated on Top Gear: James May is old and slow, Richard Hammond is short, and Jeremy Clarkson is a tall baboon. It was like a happy reassurance that the boys were truly back and nothing had changed.

And then the real show began. Inside a tent.

 

The Mobile Tent

Clarkson, Hammond, and May in the tent

At Top Gear, each show—barring the Specials—takes place inside the hangar by the Top Gear Test Track, during which the hosts go on about the latest car news, introduce and conclude the pre-recorded segments, and talk with celebrities. It’s a formula that Clarkson developed over his many years hosting Top Gear and that has continued after his departure.

In The Grand Tour…it’s all the same—except now the live portion takes place inside a tent that goes around the world, so that each locale and each crowd is different. For the first episode, the tent is in the California desert with an American crowd—and if you thought that would stop the trio from making fun of Americans like they used to, you’d be wrong. They laughed at how Americans name car parts and Clarkson even dared to call a Ford pickup truck “stupid.” It was all in good fun, however, and the atmosphere was positive; in fact, there was a whole lot of audience interaction and everyone seemed to love it.

But then it was time for the first segment.

 

The Holy Trinity of Hypercars

The holy trinity of hypercars

Before Clarkson and co. left the BBC, their most anticipated show revolved around comparing the holy trinity of hypercars: LaFerrari, the McLaren P1, and the Porsche 918. Clarkson had even promised that no matter what, they would find a way to get the comparison done, even though McLaren was being a bit difficult and Ferrari was being very difficult. But they had never gotten around to doing it before the drama.

Since then, several other groups were able to get their hands on the trinity to do the job, yet it still seemed only fitting—despite the tardiness—that TGT’s first car segment would open with the very comparison that had been promised. And it served as a perfect opportunity to show that TGT was just as good, if not better, than the Top Gear of old. The cinematography was on point, the sound work was improved, and the segment was longer than any I remember from Top Gear, which did the holy trinity comparison justice. I especially loved that they held an electric-power-only drag race between the cars, which I hadn’t seen done before. The only thing I didn’t like was the over-use of grainy film shots.

And if you’re wondering about the result: the Porsche 918 won the lap time test, at the cost of Clarkson’s house. You’ll just have to watch the episode.

 

Conversation Street, Celebrity Brain Crash, Eboladrome, and the American

The Eboladrome

The Grand Tour’s new, Ebola Virus-shaped test track

As mentioned, old Top Gear had a segment where the hosts simply talked about car news and one where they talked with a celebrity. It also had the Top Gear Test Track, where the celebrities competed with each other to set the best lap times in the same car, and where the Stig put in the best laps he could with different cars. New Top Gear is not all that different from this, and neither is The Grand Tour.

TGT now has “Conversation Street,” where the guys will talk about car news. It has “Celebrity Brain Crash,” during which Clarkson will presumably talk with a celebrity. I say “presumably” because while they tried to get Jeremy Renner on the show, he “died” as he was skydiving on his way down to the tent. As a backup plan, they tried to get Armie Hammer instead, but he was “killed” by a rattlesnake. So they instead tried to pull Carol Vorderman out of the audience, but it turned out she was mysteriously dead as well. I thought it was funny when Renner fake-died, though the joke quickly got old and I wondered if they wouldn’t have done better to simply go through with the normal segment—the playing out of the fake deaths took about as long.


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The American

The American complains that the Eboladrome is narrower than his driveway

TGT also introduced the “Eboladrome,” a custom racetrack in England that features “trees, animals, moisture, electricity, and an unexploded WWII bomb.” It’s called that way because the shape of the track resembles the shape of the Ebola virus, though whether this was done intentionally isn’t specified. Clarkson seemed to imply the track was designed for the purpose of the show and slipped in a Silverstone diss while he was at it. I wondered if that wasn’t actually a jab at Top Gear, as both the Silverstone circuit and Top Gear Test Track are built on an airfield.

Finally, TGT’s own version of the Stig was introduced: Mike Skinner, a NASCAR driver who Clarkson simply refers to as “the American,” and who supposedly thinks of all cars that don’t have a V8 at the front as “communists.”

 

Conclusion

Clarkson, Hammond and May

All told, things haven’t changed much—not nearly as much as I was expecting. That’s probably a good thing, given that the original Top Gear formula that Clarkson developed had worked so well before. All the usual segments are still there, only tweaked and rebranded; and more importantly, the good-natured ribbing between the three hosts is still the centerpiece of the show. As for those who actually watch the show for cars, there is no cause for worry there either, as the cars don’t seem to have taken a backseat to all of the shenanigans.

If I had to rate the first episode, I’d probably give it four and a half stars out of five. I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of the season!

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  • Kurt VerlinEditor

    Kurt Verlin was born in France and lives in the United States. Throughout his life he was always told French was the language of romance, but it was English he fell in love with. He likes cats, music, cars, 30 Rock, Formula 1, and pretending to be a race car driver in simulators; but most of all, he just likes to write about it all. See more articles by Kurt.