When I admit that I enjoy Amazon’s The Grand Tour, a car show made for and by a bunch of old white guys, I always feel like I should phrase it as a confession, an apology, a mea culpa. I say it sheepishly, because on some level I do know better. Back when Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond were fronting BBC’s Top Gear, they were constantly criticized for offending entire groups of people with some offhand remark. A homophobic joke, perhaps, or some Mexican stereotypes. These jokes were in poor taste, and inexcusable, really. Except that they were part of the personality of the hosts. The offensive comments were no worse than the jokes they made at the expense of each other. There is no separating the art from the artist here — being assholes kind of became their brand. These were men who seemed to delight in being controversial for the sake of it, in pissing everyone off equally — and they got away with it for a good, long while because the show (a show about cars, mind you) became the most-watched factual program in the world, according to the 2013 Guinness Book of World Records. It was a show watched by an estimated 350 million people worldwide in its heyday. And so the BBC would apologize for every offense, and smooth things over… until the bad behavior shifted from being a PR nightmare to an HR issue.
In 2015 the BBC decided not to renew Jeremy Clarkson’s contract after he got into a physical and verbal dispute (or “fracas,” as they called it) with a Top Gear producer over — I wish I was kidding — a lack of hot food available after a day of shooting. Yup, he smacked a guy because he was hungry. The inexcusable became even MORE inexcusable. So Clarkson was out, and May and Hammond decided to leave with him. And though Top Gear continued on the BBC with new hosts, including Matt LeBlanc (?!?!?!) and a man named Chris Evans, who is disappointingly NOT Captain America, the spark had vanished. Or really, the spark followed the original trio into their new production deal at Amazon. The end result? The Grand Tour, which is just like Top Gear only with enough differences to avoid a lawsuit. It’s already become one of Amazon’s most-viewed programs, which is good news because the company reportedly paid about a quarter of a BILLION dollars for three seasons of it. Or less — there’s some confusion on that point. Though Clarkson has noted that the budget is “not that much bigger than it was at the BBC, it’s just we have to waste less of it on health and safety.”
It’s clear why being a fan of this show with these hosts — especially as a progressive woman — is problematic, even though I’m clearly not alone in my enjoyment. So instead of pointing out all the very obvious, logical reasons why I shouldn’t be watching what is essentially “Boys Will Be Boys: The TV Show”, let me explain why I HAVE been watching, in both iterations, for years. Full disclosure: I first discovered Top Gear when I worked for BBC Worldwide. It was, in a sense, my job to stay up-to-date on their programs. But I continued to watch long after I “had” to because I genuinely enjoyed it. For one thing, the filmmaking was and still is exceptional. It’s just a beautifully shot program, from the landscapes to the hero shots of the cars. It may be a silly car show fronted by three aging Brits, but it doesn’t look silly. The hosts would race across different countries, ostensibly “testing” different vehicles, from hot hatchbacks to supercars, or they’d have to build their own vehicles to complete challenges. Hijinx, naturally, would ensue — as would mayhem and pranks and even history lessons. The show could be thought-provoking and downright poetic when it chose to. Plus: explosions. A LOT of explosions. Like the time Hammond and May played Battleship by dropping cars onto targets:
There are also injuries. In fact, Richard Hammond experienced a pretty horrific car crash during filming on the second season of The Grand Tour — but since he survived, they’ve used it as more joke fodder.
To be fair, the first season of The Grand Tour wasn’t a seamless transition from Top Gear. There were kinks to be worked out in the new format. On Top Gear there’s The Stig, a mysterious and anonymous masked race car driver who tests the cars and sets their official lap speeds, but that concept remained with the BBC. So The Grand Tour, in a sort of “fuck you” version of appeasing their new Amazon overlords, hired “The American” — an annoying southern-fried NASCAR surrogate who loudly hated anything that wasn’t a Ford Mustang, basically. Nobody liked him, and so when the second season launched a few weeks ago, he was gone. In his place?
A mysterious woman is the new official test driver for The Grand Tour. No, she isn’t The Stig. And no, she hasn’t really said anything on camera yet. She hasn’t even been named on-air, though based on the credits we know she’s Abbie Eaton. Her very presence, understated as it is, marks a huge shift in the boys club dynamics of the show. By way of introduction, this is all Clarkson said:
“We needed a new driver. We spent the last nine months auditioning everyone we could think of — former F1 drivers, rally drivers, stunt drivers, test drivers — until we ended up with the fastest. And here she is.”
It was so simple.
Of course, the cynic in me knows that hiring a woman in this role may very well be a calculated way of proofing themselves against complaints of sexism, or an effort at diversity on behalf of their Amazon overlords. But I want to believe that introduction. I want to believe she earned her place on The Grand Tour because of her skill and her speed, and that there was really nothing else that needed to be said about it. I want to believe it, because honestly? It’ll make me feel a little better about continuing to watch this beloved and unrepentant sausage fest.