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‘The Grand Tour’ Takes ‘Top Gear’ to Another Level

With a budget to shame the BBC, Amazon’s successor enlivens the formula

(Amazon)
(Amazon)

I count 150 freakishly gorgeous coupes, jeeps, three-wheelers, pickups, roadsters, tractors, and sedans in the fleet that amasses in the California desert for the great prologue that opens The Grand Tour, the renegade spin-off of the BBC’s popular car-porn series, Top Gear.

The Grand Tour premiere showcases three cars, in particular:

  • A red LaFerrari, driven by James May;
  • A white Porsche 918 Spyder, driven by Richard Hammond; and
  • A black McLaren P1, driven by Jeremy Clarkson.

The premiere isn’t a simple road test; for these three men, it never is. As fans of Clarkson, Hammond, and May have come to expect, the episode is 70 minutes of them cracking potshots at each other and their respective cars. Early in the premiere, Clarkson and Hammond swap vehicles — the former switching to the Porsche, the latter taking the McLaren — with each man privately marveling at the horsepower and handling as they take laps around the Algarve International Circuit in Portimão, Portugal. Then they park, hop out, and continue issuing put-downs. May shows up with his Ferrari and dares either Clarkson or Hammond to beat him in a time trial. “If the McLaren isn’t the fastest,” Clarkson later wagers, “you two can knock my house down. Knock it down. And I mean that.” (The unexplained irony here is that Clarkson just demolished his nearly $5 million Cotswold farmhouse to build a new estate.)

The competitive dynamic on display here will be familiar to fans of Clarkson, Hammond, and May. The Grand Tour is the successor to the BBC’s long-running TV series Top Gear, which began as a relatively straightforward showcase for motor obsessives in 1977. The series became a global pop culture phenomenon only after Clarkson tapped the automotive-magazine journalists Hammond and Jason Dawe to relaunch the series for the BBC in 2002. May replaced Dawe in Season 2, and the three hosts’ chemistry together — equal parts chatty, petty, and mischievous — quickly endeared them to viewers keen to see not only the cars, but also the stupid things men will do with them.

(Amazon)
(Amazon)

The Clarkson-Hammond-May iteration of Top Gear ran on the BBC for 21 seasons, plus 11 feature-length specials. Last spring, the cohosts departed from the series, along with executive producer Andy Wilman, and Amazon Studios quickly confirmed that the company had inked deals with the trio, plus Wilman, to produce The Grand Tour for Amazon Prime. Meanwhile, the BBC recruited cohosts Matt LeBlanc and Chris Evans in an attempt to salvage Top Gear for a 23rd season, with disastrous results. As the show’s massive summer 2016 ratings spinout indicates, Top Gear fanatics hated the LeBlanc-Evans pairing as much as the hosts themselves apparently did.

Amazon expects to better recreate the magic of Top Gear with the benefit of having broken the bank for the franchise’s most popular hosts. Drawing a salary of nearly $12.5 million per year, Clarkson is now reportedly the highest-paid TV host in Britain. There have been sacrifices, too, though: The move from BBC to Amazon Prime means the former Top Gear hosts have gone from a massive audience base — an estimated 350 million viewers across 214 territories that carry BBC programming — to a potential viewership of 63 million Amazon Prime subscribers.

Throughout The Grand Tour series premiere, the hosts make light of their exodus from the BBC, going so far as to recruit Jeremy Renner, Armie Hammer, and Carol Vorderman to morbidly spoof the old “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” segment from Top Gear. Still, apart from the traveling-cargo circus tent, the set pieces are all pretty familiar: the slapstick hosts, the live studio audience, the celebrity guests, and the professional drivers who take the wheel for the only slightly more serious time-trial segments. U.S. stock car driver Mike Skinner grudgingly takes a spin in Clarkson’s favorite M series BMW sports car, the M2, and concludes that the German coupe is probably “Communist.” That is your typical Top Gear/The Grand Tour lesson in cross-cultural exchange.

(Amazon)
(Amazon)

Hammond used to look like a child; now he looks like a child with a goatee. May’s mop of hair has gone totally white, and it’s shaggier than ever, but he’s otherwise held fast to his undisputed title as the slowest driver . . . in the world. And Clarkson is the same old rag-doll orangutan who has spent the past couple of decades thrashing about in the tabloids. In promoting the show, Amazon has emphasized the “far-flung” nature of The Grand Tour (filming “in locations ranging from Johannesburg to California, Whitby, England to Rotterdam, and Lapland to Nashville”) as a core point of conceptual departure, but the original Top Gear, hosted at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey, England, was already a global road show. Top Gear would occasionally send Clarkson, Hammond, and May to visit exotic destinations, typically for special documentary episodes, such as a 2010 race up the Blue Ridge Parkway (“East Coast Road Trip”) or a biblical tour of the Levant (“Middle East Special”).

But none of these guys are de Tocqueville or Bourdain. They are not gracious travelers who move through foreign populaces with nimble curiosity; they are creaky oafs who, in their assertively masculine middle age, merrily offend the sensitivities of each new nation they explore. In recent years, Top Gear churned through a montage of controversies, such as when Hammond, describing a Mastretta MXT, said, “a Mexican car’s just going to be a lazy, feckless, flatulent oaf with a moustache.” Viewers and the British press cried foul, Mexico’s ambassador to the U.K. got involved, and the BBC ultimately offered an apology. It is only one of many that the network has issued on behalf of Clarkson, Hammond, and May.

Similarly outrageous episodes would go on to involve diplomats from India, China, and Argentina, where the political uproar against the Top Gear crew’s presence in 2014 got so loud that Argentine courts have pursued criminal charges against Clarkson ever since. As much as these frequent diplomatic crises threatened the longevity of the series, they also underscore the appeal of Top Gear’s hosts. (I won’t recount each dispute here, just know that there’s an exhausting Wikipedia entry for “Top Gear controversies” that is nearly as long as the one for “Top Gear episodes.”) The sort of viewer who regards “political correctness” as a real scourge might describe Clarkson, Hammond, and May as candid, uninhibited, and carefree — and slow to apologize for any offense taken at their locker room talk. Clarkson, in particular, propels himself upward by the sheer force of his expletives and reckless characterizations.

Ultimately, Top Gear buckled under the weight of its controversies. In March 2015, Clarkson got into it with producer Oisin Tymon, busting Tymon’s lip, calling him a “lazy, Irish cunt,” and threatening to fire him from the show. On March 10, the BBC suspended Clarkson. On March 25, the network announced that it wouldn’t renew his contract, which was due to expire that month. In turn, Hammond, May, and Wilman announced that they would follow Clarkson into the wilderness. Since the core Top Gear team finalized its deal with Amazon less than six months after having terminated their relationship with the BBC, there was no great lag between gigs, which means the franchise’s essential spark remains intact. Which isn’t to say that The Grand Tour is a sure bet. With a need to justify their new show’s astronomical production costs, the ex-Top Gear trio’s stakes are higher than ever before.

Jeff Bezos, who has described The Grand Tour as “very, very, very expensive” to produce, is spending more than $199 million to produce 36 episodes released over the course of three years. (Top Gear, in comparison, costs about $7 million per season, ranging from five to 10 episodes each, plus specials.) If Top Gear was indulgent, then The Grand Tour is wonderfully gluttonous. The premiere’s four-minute opening sequence alone — which depicts Clarkson fleeing London by plane and reconvening with Hammond, May, and 150 tricked-out gear freaks driving to a “Burning Van” festival in a California desert, with eight Breitling jets flying overhead — cost over $3 million to produce. Overall, the show is rich with self-indulgent cinematography: grand aerial sweeps of saturated landscapes, dramatic vehicle reveals, playful chassis shots, and races shot from more angles, and with more slow-mo, than is strictly necessary. The props shine, and the candy paint jobs are spotless.

Notably, Amazon isn’t capitulating to the current binge-watching trend by releasing all 12 episodes at once, instead opting to release a new episode every Thursday at 7:01 p.m. ET. I have my own theory for why this might be the case: God forbid the media class gets ahold of these episodes and spills its outrage at the same time, when ideally the series would maximize its publicity mileage by stringing the critics along week by week, gaffe by gaffe. Clarkson opens the premiere episode with a joke about “gypsies” — the sort of comments that are “going to get us fired,” Hammond quickly warns. No longer burdened by the BBC’s national importance, but presumably wiser for the wear, the cohosts of The Grand Tour seem poised to counterbalance their new freedom by tempering their irreverence only slightly. Clarkson’s new farmhouse estate, which he’s building from the ground up, costs too much money for him to risk burning it down now.