‘The Grand Tour’ is not that grand

NOVEMBER 18TH, 2016 — POST 312

The brilliance of the title sneaks up on you. When I first heard that the Amazon Original series the former hosts of BBC’s Top Gear were making would be called ‘The Grand Tour’, I didn’t really get it. When I saw the logo treatment, it clicked a little. A striated orange italic treatment of the letters “GT”, the logo evoked the badges that would proudly adorn one of the most revered and dignified class of car, the grand tourer or gran turismo. When, in The Grand Tour’s opening sequence, Jeremy Clarkson leaves the dreary evergrey of London for the endless sunshine of the California desert in a Mustang — first flanked by Richard Hammond and James May also in Mustangs, but soon swamped in a motley band of motoring celebration en route to “Burning Van” — the series’ name began to transcend. The “beyond-bordersness” that the automobile embodies, that cars are uniquely equipped to move and conquer the world, was always latent philosophical kernel of the original Top Gear, a kernel that, present in the title, would seem to serve as The Grand Tour’s modus operandi.

Despite the early headiness, The Grand Tour quickly settles into the familiar — a studio set where the three hosts navigate a standing audience through the week’s featured segments. To its credit, we’re told the studio is a tent, a tent that will roam the world throughout the series. The international aspirations of The Grand Tour are obvious: no longer under the guidance of the British Broadcasting Corporation and over-the-air broadcast, the show has to be more than British. But as much as Clarkson seems triumphant getting in a black cab and heading straight for Heathrow in the opening sequence, the hosts can’t help their nationality. The first part inside the studio is a somewhat flabby bit about all “wrong” words Americans have for parts of cars. The show’s test track — presumably the only repeatable location — is in England as well. These are little things but they are symptoms of something that the show suffers from as a whole: The Grand Tour is stuck in the middle.

The show makes it impossible to avoid comparisons with Clarkson, Hammond, and May’s years on Top Gear. The format is identical, right down to the tame racing driver and lap time boards. But strange given the hosts, The Grand Tour inhabits a kind of uncanny valley. It’s so close to being Top Gear and yet just far enough away to prompt pause in the viewer. The distance — the “just far enough away” — seems born from what feels like a new team mimicking the style of another. In Episode 1’s first segment — in which the hosts whip hybrid hypercars around a Portuguese race track — the image is treated with some peculiar effects, colour washes, and aggressive post-production noise patterns to apparently amp up the excitement of $3million-worth of machine. The lapse is short, only 30–45 seconds long, but it is glaring to long-time viewers of Top Gear. I recognise the guys, I recognise what they’re doing, but there’s something between them and me — what feels like a chubby buffer of a production apparatus tasked with the reproduction of the work of others.

I remarked on the Evans/LeBlanc Top Gear that

The Top Gear team still proves to include some of the most formidable technicians. The production is irrefutably world class.

The BBC has identifiably maintained their more than two-decades worth of knowhow internally and it shows with the new season of Top Gear, even if the hosts proved to be a total mess. The Grand Tour has the opposite problem, and one that seems obvious in hindsight: three ideal hosts captaining an old ship that a fresh crew shouldn’t be asked to make work. The writing has taken a hit. Gratuity abounds — there’s at least 15–20 minutes of literal wasted time in Episode 1 with jokes that aren’t funny as the hosts continue to lean into (and wear out) their on-screen personas in a way that long-running series are susceptible to. And I already know I’m going to hate every mention of The Stig’s surrogate in NASCAR driver Mike Skinner becoming “The American” — a ham-fisted attempt to forge a memorable cartoon character. Instead of the ever-helmetted silent Stig, the production is forcing poor Skinner to make intentionally “ignorant” remarks whilst driving because — guys, guys, guys, listen guys — he’s American and thinks everything else is (and this is literally the best schtick they have) “communist”! (The mind boggles at what other over-engineered characters might have been discussed in initial meetings and ultimately discarded.)

The real tragedy of all this is both The Grand Tour and new Top Gear are just trying to be old Top Gear. Both are chasing a phoenix that long ago self-immolated. The promise embedded in the title of The Grand Tour and in the series’ opening minutes is ultimately unfulfilled. It’s for this reason — as well as Clarkson’s explicit noting of the platform that is the internet the show exists on — that one might have reasonably hoped the series to deliver a novel approach to the car show, to distill more than twenty years worth of experience into something new, something international, and something truly grand. If Episode 1 is indicative of the rest of the series’ twelve episodes — or the implied next two seasons — the hope might reveal itself to have been little more than a dream.

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