Well, it was decent, actually.
First, a little history: Top Gear is a UK car show for car fanatics that has always pulled in viewers like me, who don’t care about cars even slightly. I got turned onto it by a Brit friend who was a die hard Top Gear fanatic, and I groaned when he first put it on, but it was good. Really good, sometimes. I never ever ever would have thought to watch had someone else not turned it on in front of my face.
When I started watching around 2006-ish, these three clowns were the hosts. They had been since the beginning. That’s Richard Hammond on the left, Jeremy Clarkson in the middle, and James May on the right.
And they were all the hosts right up until last year when Clarkson, the often-insufferable-weirdly-compelling clown in the middle, punched one of his producers out over a steak dinner.
Long time Top Gear fans all have opinions on Jeremy Clarkson. My friend called him “an arrogant twat” and “a complete wanker in every possible way” and also said “he’s fucking brilliant” and “without him the show would be complete pants.” Clarkson is a big personality, but he’s always been the main dude on Top Gear and that’s given him a kind of god-like cult status in the UK because of the popularity of the show. It’s a little like what Bill Simmons says about Kanye West: he’s a genius. The problem is that he knows it.
So, when Clarkson was fired, (after multiple warnings from the BBC over many years, depending on what you read) his two co-hosts and mates bowed out as well. I’ll say that I love Hammond and May, and the chemistry between the three is what made the show all these years. I mean, how could this be interesting to someone like me who doesn’t care about cars…like, at all? Because of these three guys, who are so much fun, so bright and witty (or daft, from time to time), the ridiculous / jealousy-inducing things they did, wry British humor and generally a product that always managed to be bizarrely entertaining. And also, a bit of hate-watching for Clarkson, as well. There was some of that. He can be such a douche.
Without their hosts, Top Gear had to re-tool for their 23rd season, and they decided to make Chris Evans (no, not that one, America) their new Clarkson. And in the move that personally got me excited, they went out on a potentially terrifying limb and picked their first non-UK host. A bloody American of all things! Cue various clips of pearl clutching and the Queen fainting.
And last night it debuted on BBC America. So, how was it?
I have to be honest, I enjoyed it. People had some trepidation about Joey Tribiani but if you read the various mouthbreathers panning the show on Twitter, their concern is primarily new host Chris Evans and how frenetic and eager-beavery he is. He’s earnest for sure. Possibly a bit too much, but it’s the very first episode and you have to think he’ll settle in a bit. He’s probably out of his gourd with excitement at taking the helm of a flagship franchise, and once he gets used to it I’m sure he’ll dial it down a little. He didn’t seem shaken by calls for his head.
The new Top Gear is a hit. OFFICIALLY. 23 % audience share. 12% MORE than the opening episode of the last series. These are the FACTS.— Chris Evans (@achrisevans) May 30, 2016
Top Gear audience grew throughout the hour. FACT. Won its slot. FACT. Still number one on i Player. FACT. These are THE FACTS folks.— Chris Evans (@achrisevans) May 30, 2016
And how about Matt LeBlanc? I wasn’t a Friends fan, and I always thought he was a bit dim until I saw him on Showtime’s Episodes and he was so self-effacing and funny and down to earth that I loved him. I think the fact that he’s more laid back will be acceptable to UK viewers, and I quite like the dynamic that our guy is the reserved host while their guy is the overblown tosser.
For me, LeBlanc was great. His first challenge was racing a shitwagon, three-wheeled Reliant Rialo to Blackpool. For an American who has watched this show for years, it’s nice to have an American as confused about locations in England as I often am. Adding a foreign perspective can also heighten some of the moments of absurdity (to us) that are quintessentially British, like Lord Mayors in robes. For my favorite LeBlanc section, go here to watch the full episode online and jump to the 20:25 mark as LeBlanc, in a helmet and bear suit, is riding in his car on a flatbed - his shitty Rialto having survived only 23 minutes. He breaks into an impromptu review, his first on Top Gear.
“Let’s talk about this gem of an automobile here. Acceleration….can’t tell. Handling….can’t tell. The clock works, apparently. It’s midnight. The fabric on the seats is…disgusting. I wonder, when they finished the first prototype, did they shine it all up, step back, look at it and say….’oh yeah: nailed it. You think that was the conversation?”
And they still feature the ultimate masked test driver and fan-favorite: The Stig.
One of the more fun segments they carried over from the old format is when they invite celebrities to “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” and do runs on their test track (this time it’s a partially off-road rally course) and then they keep all their times on a leaderboard. The guests on the premiere were Jesse Eisenberg, who has owned exactly one car in his life (a used Honda Accord) and Gordon Ramsay who is a car fanatic and owns a LaFerrari, which retails between 1.5 and 5 million dollars.
As expected, Ramsay blew Eisenberg’s doors off. (LeBlanc still holds the course record for his guest appearance driving a Kia Cee).
In the end, it was good clean fun. Much the same way Top Gear has always been, if not exactly in the same way. For Top Gear fans who know nothing other than the Clarkson, Hammond & May team, yeah, it’s a bit of a shock. But here’s the thing, it’s not going to be the old Top Gear that everyone loves. I think the UK versus US theme is rife with free comedy and LeBlanc was an excellent pick to represent the Stars and Stripes across the pond. Clarkson, Hammond & May, in the meantime, have signed on for an all new car show on Amazon Prime, which will debut in August called The Grand Tour.
It was a bitter disappointment to fans who were hoping for a wackier or more bawdy title.
I see that many people think our new show is called Gear Knobs. Well you heard it here first. It isn't.— Jeremy Clarkson (@JeremyClarkson) October 9, 2015
The show will feature a different country in every episode, and early reports look promising.
So, whether you’re a Top Gear fan or a Clarkson, Hammond & May devotee, come August you’ll be in good shape either way. The new Top Gear still has all the cars, all the inane treks, and all the gorgeous beauty shots you could ever want. I think the BBC is looking to draw in a more casual crowd, and in doing that, car aficionados and motorheads might be turned off a bit by the lack of super-powered auto reviewing, as the new show seems a bit lighter in that department. The question, ultimately, is whether or not people will get used to the new hosts, and I’m guessing they will.