Tuesday, 28 February 2017

TV Shows #14

The Grand Tour Season One (2016)
Developed By: Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May, Andy Wilman Starring: Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May, Mike Skinner

Certificate: 12 Running Time: 44-71 Minutes per Episode, 13 Episodes

I can't imagine there are too many TV shows that have been as divisive as Top Gear. To many, the show was infantile nonsense at best, and hosted by three ageing cretins who should know better. Controversy has never been far away from the immature antics of James May, Richard Hammond, and particularly Jeremy Clarkson, with some even throwing labels such as 'racist', 'homophobic', and 'sexist' in their direction. Conversely, however, the show also had a great many fans who adored the troublesome trio responsible for it, and I was one of them. I almost feel like I should apologise for that, what with the misdemeanours (alleged) of its stars. I don't actually like them that much outside the confines of the Top Gear format, and I don't even like some of the things they say/do on the show either, but I can't pretend I don't find them amusing much of the time.

I mean, getting to see (and hear) all the crazy supercars they test is pretty great in itself but it's the segments with all three together, the 'three mates, having a laugh' as they put it themselves, that most entertain. Things like the 'Cheap Car Challenge', for example, or their yearly 'specials' never failed to raise a laugh, and who could forget their attempts to build their own vehicles? Things like the Hammerhead Eagle i-Thrust, the P45, and the Hovervan are comedy gold. But then it all went wrong.

In the tent, engaged in serious discussion as always...
After assaulting a member of TG's crew, Clarkson found himself back in the headlines once again. Was it simply his ego out of control? Who knows but he was quickly gone, and the other two joined him soon after, along with series producer, Andy Wilman, and Top Gear as its fans had known it was consigned to history. It was never going to be the last time we saw the trio though, and sure enough, within a few weeks of their rather public departure their services had been snapped up by the highest bidder - Amazon - and a brand new show was in development. When the show finally got a name and its premise was outlined, things looked very promising for fans. Each episode of The Grand Tour, you see, would take place in a different country, with 'studio' segments filmed inside a large moveable tent.

It sounded very much like the Top Gear series-finales where the guys would engage in what one might call a 'tour' across a particular country, with examples including Vietnam, Bolivia, Uganda, and of course the US. Would the new show really be a 'special' every week? I may have misunderstood but that's what it sounded like to me, so I was greatly looking forward to the new show which finally arrived last November and was enthusiastically received. Having recently watched the final episode of the season, however, I'm not so sure how I feel about it myself.

First episode and we have a trio of mental hybrids...
The guys had to be very careful not to copy their old show too closely for fear of legal reprisals but the new show still felt pretty familiar from the off. Generally, the format sees the three of them sat in front of a largely-standing audience within their tent where first they talk some nonsense about their host country. Then one of them will usually test some new car (various types but typically not anything normal people can afford) which is then shown being taken around their new test track - the Eboladrome in Wiltshire (UK) - by their new driver, a portly fellow called The American played by ex-NASCAR driver Mike Skinner. Following that we have 'Conversation Street' which is basically the 'News' section of the old show, after which the main segment of the episode begins.

This, we're told, is usually their attempt to 'settle an argument' about which is best of a particular type of car. They'll show up somewhere, each in their chosen vehicle of that type, and put them through a 'series of tests' to determine the winner, which is rarely agreed upon. Lastly, splitting this section in two is 'Celebrity Braincrash' which sees celebrities get 'killed' in various ways en route to interviews with the three goons in their tent. Interviews which then fail to materialise, naturally.

About to be dropped off for their stupid military games...
It probably sounds like the new format is a sure-fine winner them - different enough to avoid lawsuits, similar enough to satisfy existing fans, perhaps even good enough to pull in a few more - and I guess as a general outline for each episode it's fine. I can't necessarily say the same about the content though, so let's get the bad stuff out of the way. First off, the American isn't funny. He's meant to be with his constant grumbling about anything that isn't American but he isn't and his segments are not ones I look forward to, and they should be since they are the timed laps. Secondly, and I'm definitely not alone in this, Celebrity Braincrash is ridiculous, and not in a good way. On the first episode, three celebs in succession were 'killed' on their way to the tent and the interviews never took place.

I found this a bit surprising to say the least - it hardly seems worth a celeb's time and effort. I kept waiting for them to jump up, revealing that they are in fact alive and well, and getting on with the interview, but alas - the 'deaths' really were the end of the segment. Suffice to say, neither I, nor anyone else from what I've read, found it even slightly humorous. Then, while watching the second episode, something similar happened another celeb met his supposed grizzly end.

Hammond's garden car closes in on Clarkson's carcass car...
I couldn't believe this was actually going to be a regular feature in the show but sadly it is present in every episode. I can't tell you if it ever gets funny though, as I've fast-forwarded through it from the third episode onward. Thank you streamed television for these services you provide! These are easily the worst two things about the show. There are a few other little things I didn't like - the theme tune isn't great, the Eboladrome (named as it apparently looks like the ebola virus) isn't as good as Top Gear's (old) test track, and I find it really irritating that they still do the 'hot laps' in wet conditions (what's the point?) - but other than these points The Grand Tour is pretty good. The supercar tests, for example, are as good as they always were, and it's always awesome to see the latest (usually) crazy example (like the Aston Martin Vulcan, for example).

The best part of each episode is still the road trip with the three goons competing against each other, taking the piss or playing pranks, arguing about whose car is the best, and all the other tomfoolery we're so used to by now, whether their points of contention are hybrid supercars, sporty roadsters, or expensive SUV's, and their efforts to make environmentally friendly cars with May's mud car, Hammond's garden car, and Clarkson's meat/bone car, result in the sort of chaos we've seen numerous times before. We still get a two-part cross-country special too, which this time sees the guys attempting to travel the length of Namibia's coast in beach buggies.

Jeremy attempts to get in the Vulcan which isn't so easy...
I have enjoyed every episode to varying degrees. The second was easily the worst with the road trip replaced by a stupid Edge of Tomorrow style military operation but the rest has been pretty good. I do have one other gripe with the show though. The main segment of each episode, be it a road trip or whatever other form their three-way 'tests' might take, doesn't take place in the country they're actually visiting that week. For example, in the first episode which is hosted by Los Angeles, they go to Portugal to test their chosen vehicles, in the third episode which takes place in the UK, they go to Italy for the testing, etc. The story is the same with every episode and I don't get it. I thought the very notion behind the 'grand tour' premise was to experience that country, to drive around it!

What's the point of dragging their equipment and crew all over around the world just to film a few segments in front of a small audience in a tent? They might as well have just stayed in the UK and saved Amazon a butt-load of cash. Unless their arrogance has reached such levels that they just did it because they could. I guess it doesn't really matter too much though - despite spending much of this review moaning, I really did find The Grand Tour entertaining for the most part.

Careening down Namibian dunes...
Its main problem is the success of Top Gear and the expectation from fans. It's been far from a secret that Amazon gave Clarkson & Co a huge budget, and much has also been made of how they are now free from the apparently tyrannical shackles of the BBC and their strict rulebook; they were free to do anything they wanted, as long as it wasn't lifted directly from the continuing Top Gear of course. I think because of these facts, many fans were expecting Super Top Gear, Top Gear Extreme, or something else that would blow their minds and allow them to mock the BBC in a hearty and enthusiastic fashion. What they got was just... kind of... more of the same. But without some Top Gear stuff they weren't allowed to use.

It's pretty clear where that budget has gone too - there's a load of unnecessary destruction, travelling, and equipment used and it does make one cringe at times. There are many fantastic shots and sequences in every episode as well though, and beyond all the extravagance, it's still great fun to watch (Celebrity Braincrash and The American aside). The stars are clearly getting on a bit now but their interactions are still what make the show what it is, and the so-called 'banter' is as prevalent here as ever before, even if it does seem a bit fake and scripted now and then.

Hopefully the boys aren't too up themselves to listen to the reviews and feedback from fans, tweak the format for the next season, and return better than ever. Is it worth subscribing to Amazon Prime for though? Well, if you already liked them - yes. If you've never watched them - possibly - there's plenty of other content to cushion the blow if you don't like this show. And if you didn't like them before - definitely not. But you probably guessed that already.

RKS Score: 7/10


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