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The Grand Tour, Season 1 Review

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The Grand Tour’s first season (series, in British-talk) has ended, and with it has come more questions than answers regarding the much-awaited reboot of the world’s three most famous public television alumni. Is The Grand Tour good? Is it bad? Is it just OK? Is “the American,” sweetly, mercifully going to be a one-season guest? Will Celebrity Brain Crash finally stop torturing us for 2-3 minutes a week? Can the corny tent sketches evolve into something… watchable?

The truth is, it’s at the seams where The Grand Tour frays most noticeably. Segment transitions are wonky, filler bits are often painfully over-scripted, and the show’s big shtick – being in a tent somewhere around the world every week – has been utterly inconsequential in the larger scheme of the program. There is so frustratingly little holding the show together that we are reduced to saying “Well, the films are good. Sometimes.”

That is a long way to fall from what I would dub ‘Peak Top Gear’ around the show’s tenth to late-teenth seasons, a span that includes some of the finest semi-scripted reality television (let’s be open: that’s what the “films” are) ever produced. The Top Gear Vietnam special, often held up as the very best Top Gear episode of all time, doesn’t even have anything to do with cars. The Botswana special’s vehicles are utterly forgettable trash (sorry, Oliver sucked). The Bolivia special was most endearing for the truly excellent storytelling and sense of urgency it created in the audience, not for flashy editing, “enthusiast” cars, or extensive visual effects.

Many of us had hoped that TGT (which I will refer to it as from here out) would essentially seek to rehash Top Gear’s most beloved specials – but with increased frequency thanks to Amazon’s ample coffers. Instead, we’ve received a 4K HDR knockoff of Late Top Gear (i.e., seasons 20 onward), easily the weakest era in the show’s long history. Here is my assessment.

Best Episode: Moroccan Roll

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Moroccan Roll is a rehash of one of Top Gear’s often-successful formulas: a three-way car review in unfamiliar terrain, wrapped up in the form of a road trip. The banter works, the gags are lighthearted and don’t feel too scripted, and the cars are damn good. It’s the formula for an episode that should be a classic, and in a sense, it is: it’s the only episode from the whole TGT series I think I’d willingly rewatch today. A year from now, there might be more candidates, but this is the only one that truly flowed for me. Also, the game of caravan battleships was exactly the sort of childish, outlandish, destructive behavior that so endeared fans of Top Gear over the years. Who doesn’t love trashing a trailer?

This episode feels like a medium-bright spot in the Late Top Gear era, of which there were several, though I will say it sometimes failed to hold my attention. Sadly, for every other episode, I can say at the very least they consistently failed to hold my attention.

Worst Episode: Operation Desert Stumble

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Worse than the Top Gear India special. By far. Desert Stumble is over-scripted to the point of tedium, the kind of thing even your “I just watch it for the cars” uncle can’t be bothered to sit through because it reminds him these guys are trying to be funny. I couldn’t finish this episode, because it was just completely pointless on every level. I fast-forwarded to the breaks, which offered no relief from the onslaught of camo-Clarkson’s clowning.

Desert Stumble is case in point of the new show’s heavy reliance on tight scripting and caricature not just for studio segments, but for the actual films. It feels as though there is such a crunch to get everything captured quickly, efficiently, and on-budget that there is essentially no room for ad-libbing or deviation from the storyboard. Additionally, the guys feel like they’re not being themselves, but what they believe to be themselves as developed over 25 years doing Top Gear. Clarkson and Co simply don’t do well as scripted reality stars – they aren’t actors, and it shows. You do not want to watch this episode.

Runner-up, Worst Episode: Italian Lessons

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On paper, Italian Lessons is exactly the show I wanted from TGT. The guys buy three old clunkers, particularly unreliable ones, and are given a pointless series of tasks which leads to 40 minutes of ad-libbed and semi-scripted remarks on the cars, banter between the hosts, and improvisational comedy.

But the formula utterly fizzled in this episode. One of the cars was so unreliable it wasn’t funny anymore (Jeremy’s), while the other two were basically fine. None of the cars had an ounce of character that shone through the film. And much of the content, even when not scripted, hemmed so tightly to the caricatures each host seems so devoted to adhering to in TGT that all suspension of disbelief was impossible. They felt like actors playing Jeremy, Richard, and James. They didn’t feel like the quirky public television hosts that had been let off the leash we’ve all come to really love over the years.

Like Operation Desert Stumble, Italian Lessons is weighed down immensely by tight production and scripting that bleeds into the “reality” of the show at the expense of believability. The bizarre sort of “semi-acting” from the cast, who seem to have no real horse in this race, does not help. It feels as though they’re merely paid to act like the scripted events are very surprising to them, and do so in a way that is in accordance with the character they have created. It makes what once felt fun, spontaneous, and personal seem tedious, planned, and artificial.

The Verdict: Many problems, few clear solutions

My individual episode critiques don’t even get to the awfulness that is “The American,” Celebrity Brain Crash, or the groan-worthy studio sketches. Because everyone knows these things are bad. I’m sure even the TGT team know those areas need serious attention on the second run-through.

But given James May has indicated that TGT is probably the end of the line for the trio in terms of a regular television series, I am unfortunately not inclined to believe the quality of the films, writing, or approach will dramatically improve. I realize many people like The Grand Tour, that it provides them entertainment, but I truly do believe there is an opportunity to do something great here and that Clarkson, Wilman, and the others are just looking at this as an early retirement package. I don’t fault them for that, I just don’t think it makes good television.

Much like Late Top Gear, then, The Grand Tour feels checked out from the opening sequence of the first episode to the goodbye of the last. A product of a team that is happy to preserve the status quo, and simultaneously is the immovable bedrock necessary for any effort to jump-start the format and approach. I think it is unlikely such a jump-start will happen, sadly – but maybe I’m wrong. I just have the sinking feeling that three or four seasons from now, TGT will end, and most of us will have stopped caring long before that.

Meanwhile, I happily await whatever James May’s next TV miniseries is.

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