Top Gear is the world’s most-watched factual show, and with that accolade comes a certain amount of pressure to keep up the standard that viewers are used to. Top Gear in particular is the type of show that (mostly) draws its viewers from two differing camps; those that watch the show for the subject, and because they have a genuine love of cars, and those who watch because the on-screen antics, rapport and demeanor of its presenters have always been thoroughly entertaining. Sure, there are those fans that fall into both camps, as well as those that fit into neither, but on the whole, Top Gear has, over the years, managed to appeal to an impressively broad audience… until now.
Top Gear returned to our screens at the end of May this year with a new-look show and a brand new presenting line up, following the controversial firing of long-time host Jeremy Clarkson. Prior to his dismissal, Clarkson had been presenting the show, alongside James May and Richard Hammond, since 2002 (May joined the trio in 2003). The team had found their stride, knew their audience, and presented an invigorating mix of serious motoring segments, celebrity interviews, and longer feature pieces that usually involved some sort of challenge. Clarkson, Hammond and May shared a natural chemistry on screen, which was further enhanced by an enduring friendship off screen, and when Clarkson was fired, Hammond and May (along with former Top Gear executive, Andy Wilman) walked away too, leaving the BBC with no option but to either cancel the show, or relaunch it entirely.
They chose the latter, and appointed BBC Radio and TV presenter, Chris Evans, as the main host. Evans is well-known in the U.K., having a long established broadcasting career, though he is not without his fair share of controversy. Though his breakfast radio show is the most popular radio show in the U.K., Evans is an acquired taste and a lot of people really don’t take to his style of presenting at all, so it was a contentious choice from the start. It is well-known that Evans has a deep love of cars and of Top Gear; as well as owning a vast collection of classic and sports cars, he also hosts an annual ‘drive and dine’ day to raise money for charity. However, some fans of Top Gear did not welcome the appointment of a non-verified motoring expert to the show, and liked his presenting style even less.
In addition to Evans, Matt LeBlanc was also appointed as co-host. Like Evans, LeBlanc is a self-confessed car nut, and a previous appearance on Top Gear (as part of the ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’ segment) had gone over well. Unlike Evans, however, LeBlanc is well-known on both sides of the Atlantic, and, because of his Friends character, still viewed favorably. Though his appointment came out of left-field, it was generally greeted with curiosity rather than annoyance or dismissal. In addition to LeBlanc, many assumed there would be one final presenter added to the line-up, probably a woman. Sure enough, German racing driver Sabine Schmitz joined the line-up, along with three more men: Formula One pundit Eddie Jordan, YouTube star Chris Harris, and motoring journalist Rory Reid.
The 23rd season of the show did not get off to a good start, despite the all-new lineup and the great deal of time and effort that went into the relaunch. Viewers did not warm to Evans’ ‘shouty’ approach, and many complained that they felt as though their laughter was almost demanded, rather than courted. LeBlanc seemed ill-at-ease, particularly in his segments with Evans, and the jazzy new graphics used to introduce the latest models of the worlds top sports cars merely detracted from the vehicles each segment was focusing on. All in all, it was a dismal season premiere. Though the viewing figures for the U.K. audience were initially strong, with 4.4 million tuning in (23% of the audience share), those numbers dropped by over a third for episode 2, averaging just 2.8 million. It’s also worth noting that the season average of 2.4 million was less than half the audience of the least-watched Top Gear episode from Clarkson, Hammond, and May.
The show’s viewership continued to decline from there, with the result that the season finale drew an average of just 1.9 million viewers. However, those that did stick around all seemed to be in agreement about one thing: LeBlanc had improved dramatically, while Evans was still pretty awful. With rumors surfacing of tensions between the two, including the rumor that LeBlanc was threatening to quit unless Evans was fired, Evans announced his resignation from the show following the season end, saying he’d given it his best shot but that ultimately, it wasn’t good enough. Though nothing is yet confirmed, it is now reported that LeBlanc will continue as the solo host of the show when filming of season 24 starts in September, with the contributing team also staying on board.
Top Gear now has another incredibly daunting task ahead of it, and this time it’s an even bigger uphill climb. Can the show pick itself up from where it is now? In short, yes, but changes must be made. Evans’ departure is most definitely a good thing. He was too unpalatable for too many people, and the sections of the show where he and LeBlanc were on screen together made LeBlanc seem awkward as he kept glancing across at Evans – almost for assurance or approval. With Evans gone, LeBlanc has a prime opportunity to bring his deadpan humor and intelligence to the fore. While both presenters love cars, LeBlanc knows them and, most importantly, he knows what the viewers want to know about them. He also has a naturally gentle, easy appearance on screen that is exactly what a Sunday night BBC2 audience can take to.
The contributing team are all experts in their field but they have been wildly underused this season, and often it felt as though they were there solely as a prop for Evans brand of banter. Reid and Harris in particular are very good on screen; informative and knowledgeable without being patronizing, and they both have a natural, likable humor. Schmitz could be good, but she simply hasn’t been given enough chances to prove herself. If the new season were to give her more feature segments – racing the latest Aston Martin across a mountain range, or trying to beat racing records, for example – she could really shine. She is a very talented driver, and an entertaining presence.
Jordan, meanwhile, seems like a lame duck. Few have yet to really work out the purpose he serves, but it seems to be that he was drafted in for comedy value. Given that LeBlanc provides more than enough of this, the BBC could actually afford to let Jordan go. We know him as being knowledgeable about Formula One Racing, not for being a comedy king. LeBlanc, on the other hand, is known as a comedy actor, and now as a comedy actor who’s also a dab hand at presenting.
Graphics aside, the all-new Top Gear arguably proved itself to be a better car-based show than it was under Clarkson. Back then, the show had a tendency in latter years to focus more on the trio’s madcap stunts, whereas the latest season took it back to basics somewhat… until celebrities entered the equation, that is. ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’ was always a popular part of the show; a celebrity would give a short interview to Clarkson, mainly based around what cars they owned and whether they like driving or not, and then viewers would watch them drive a lap around the test track. The latest season decided to expand on that segment, renaming it ‘Stars in Rally Cars’ and pitting two celebrities against one another. It does not work.
For a start, the two celebrities are usually nothing to do with one another. Secondly, each celebrity is asked to introduce the other, and give details on what they are promoting (example; Patrick Dempsey was promoting Bridget Jones’ Baby, and viewers were shown a trailer). Evans is used to interviewing, but never really seems to drive it around to their thoughts on motoring. Not only that, but the segment is overly long. It needs to either be totally scrapped, or trimmed right down.
In fact, long segments seem to be a continual problem for the show. Obviously for the grand challenges viewers enjoy watching a story unfold, and oftentimes a longer feature will be cut into two, with one aired near the start of the show and one near the end, but Top Gear had taken to bombarding us with information in longer sections. For car enthusiasts, this is a great thing, but for regular viewers who just like to look at the fast cars and see what they can do, it can be a bit too much to take in one sitting. Leave the more in-depth stuff for Reid to cover in his online BBC3 sister show, Extra Gear, which features extra footage and behind the scenes exclusives.
All of these are relatively simple fixes, and given that over the course of the season improvements were seen, it does seem possible that Top Gear could return to… well, if not its former glory, then at least something akin to it. It’s not going to be the same show it was with Clarkson, Hammond and May, that’s inevitable, but once the comparisons stop (eventually), then the BBC could end up with a really great motoring show on its hands.
Top Gear will return in 2017