‘It doesn’t get any better than that!’ bellowed Chris Evans, about half-way through last Sunday’s episode of Top Gear, the first of the revamped series. He was referring to a segment in which he and the show’s other main presenter, the former Friends star Matt LeBlanc, drove a pair of roofless, three-wheeled Reliant Rialtos from London to Blackpool. Evans’s car was tattooed with the Union Jack. LeBlanc’s with the Stars and Stripes. This was Britain versus America.
Except, you thought, it does, can and should get a lot better than that. The Reliant Rialto segment actually summed up many of the new Top Gear’s problems. As ideas go, it was fairly unimaginative, but its execution made it even worse. This wasn’t a race, given that Evans and LeBlanc kept pace with each other. It wasn’t even really a challenge. It was simply two guys driving up north in unusual-looking cars. Had LeBlanc not suffered engine difficulties – which were probably part of the plan – there basically would have been nothing to it.
But the worst part of the Reliant Rialto segment came before they’d even embarked on their journey. It was Evans’ description of the two cars that were parked outside BBC headquarters in central London. ‘Successor to the Reliant Robin,’ he explained, ‘and equally as terrible in every way.’ And that was it. No more context for this plucky, little automobile. Nothing of its history. Of its design. Of its cult popularity. Just ‘terrible in every way’.
What's wrong with the new Top Gear?
At which point, we can’t help but start comparing old and new. The old Top Gear, with Clarkson & Co., wasn’t above bashing bad cars – often literally – but it was very rarely dismissive. You can almost imagine James May chirping in about the Reliant Rialto: ‘It might not be the prettiest car on the road, but, like a British bulldog, it’s got an ungainly sort of charm.’ Or at least some words to that effect. This practically became May’s role on the show. To stand up for the underdog.
But there was no standing up for the underdog on this new Top Gear. Here we had the rather grim spectacle of a leather-jacketed Gordon Ramsey brandishing a black-lacquered box emblazoned with the Ferrari logo. And inside? The keys to the limited edition LaFerrari Spider that he has pre-ordered at huge cost to go alongside his standard LaFerrari. Chris Evans cooed at the news. Meanwhile, Ramsey’s fellow guest on the sofa, the actor Jesse Eisenberg, simply looked embarrassed at this display of money and machismo.
There was always something a bit boys’ toys about the old Top Gear – but it was done knowingly. We were encouraged to laugh at these middle-aged men in chinos tearing around racetracks in the latest supercars. And, if it all got too much, there was always James May to bring everything down to earth. ‘Captain Slow,’ they called him, but they also understood that you need some slow alongside all the speed.
As for Chris Evans, there doesn’t seem to be much self-awareness about him at all. Before we got to that Robin Rialto segment, the show started almost promisingly with a comparison of two muscle cars on the airstrips used by the real-life ‘Topgun’ programme in Nevada. But even that soon devolved into Evans, in his own leather jacket and a pair of aviator sunglasses, whooping and hollering, driving a Dodge Viper alongside a fighter jet. If left you thinking: are we… are we meant to think this is cool?
Things can only get better...?
It’s strange that this show, which was meant to have a broader appeal than the Clarkson version, ended up being so narrow in its focus. Yes, they’ve brought in a female co-presenter, the German racing driver Sabine Schmitz, but she ended up with only a couple of minutes of screen time, and was patronisingly introduced as ‘Top Gear’s top girl’. Otherwise, it was too much Evans getting too enthusiastic about too many cars that are too expensive for the rest of us.
The great consolation is that this was only the first episode. There’s plenty of time to improve and refine this new version of Top Gear, and it’s not all bad to start with. Although he was saddled with some dodgy lines that made too much of his Hollywood stardom, LeBlanc is a likeable part of the mix. His solo adventure in the North African desert was the best segment overall.
Yet there’s also a lot of work to be done to match the brilliance of the old Top Gear. So much work, in fact, that it may not even be possible. Evans and his team are burdened with a format that has to be adhered to, but they also have to offer something different. Whereas Clarkson & Co. have the comparative clean slate of Amazon and a new show entirely. Our attention now turns to The Grand Tour.
Image Credit: TopGear.com/BBC Worldwide