It has been a long while since Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May were on TV behind the wheels of enormously powerful, outrageously expensive supercars. And it has been a long while since the trio were out touring the world and engaging in the sort of immature hijinks and focused performance tests of said cars that made the BBC series Top Gear such an immensely popular program amongst car enthusiasts and automotive laypersons alike. It has been so long, in fact, that since parting ways with Clarkson and his co-hosts, the BBC has already produced an entirely new season of Top Gear, hired Chris Evans (no, not Captain America – this Chris Evans) to host, Matt LeBlanc (yes, that Matt LeBlanc) to co-host, sacked Evans, and signed LeBlanc to a two-season deal wherein he will act as the sole host of the new program.
Needless to say, with all that going on, fans who regularly tuned in to Top Gear more for the shenanigans, the on-the-road adventures, or the cinematography, and less for the cars that cost more than a modest single-family home, were likely wondering just where in the world were Clarkson, Hammond, and May? Well, as it turns out, they were pretty much all over the world, taking their trademark style and unhelpful consumer advice, and handing it over to Amazon for the new series The Grand Tour, which will stream exclusively for Amazon Prime subscribers every Friday, starting November 18.
With the tumult of Clarkson's very public departure from the BBC, and the aforementioned hiccup the original Top Gear experienced trying to retool a show built around the personalities and camaraderie of its three presenters, its safe to say The Grand Tour came with fairly lofty expectations. What exactly did Amazon get itself into with the show's hefty price tag, and just how much of the original program would survive the transition from British public service broadcaster to the Seattle-based company that wants to deliver your next Blu-ray via autonomous drone?
Well, fans (and Amazon) will be happy to know that from the outset it is clear The Grand Tour is still the same program Top Gear was through and through. The biggest change is really in the name – well, that and where the series can be seen. Along with Clarkson, Hammond, and May, The Grand Tour has the same high production values, the same fetishistic love of seeing car tires spin and spit plumes of smoke in slow motion, and the same need to put the three presenters in a situation where they compete to see who's car is the fastest. But just because everything under the hood is essentially the same doesn't mean The Grand Tour has a short memory with regard to how it got here.
The first episode, 'The Holy Trinity', opens up with an acknowledgement of Clarkson's exit from the BBC. It's not a direct acknowledgement, mind you, as it takes the form of barley audible news audio played over a shot of Clarkson walking from an airport to a very expensive and aggressive-looking Mustang before hitting the road and being joined by Hammond and May. It's all very theatrical and a little self-indulgent, but to be fair, there is a palpable sense of joy on Clarkson's face when his two friends pop up on the highway in their own supercharged cars, so you get the sense that it's not entirely scripted and controlled down to the very last detail. And while a cover of 'I Can See Clearly Now' is a little on the nose – especially as Clarkson moves from the rainy U.K. to the sunny desert of California – it is hard not to feel a little twinge of excitement and delight at the sight of a huge crowd gathered in the desert near the show's "traveling studio".
The rest of the episode is spent settling in and assuring the audience this is the same show they remember, but with a few tweaks. The trio even has a bit of fun by introducing themselves via a list of all the employers that have fired them before getting established in their new digs. The "traveling studio" is a modified tent that functions in almost the exact same way as the hangar does on Top Gear. This time, though, there are back windows intended to showcase the new locale they'll be hosting from each week. This week is California; next week will be Johannesburg, followed by Whitby, Rotterdam, Lapland, Stuttgart, Nashville, Loch Ness, and Dubai. That should be enough to help the show differentiate itself in a purely aesthetic way as it moves forward.
But the windows also allow for a few gags, like when they try to welcome celebrity guest Jeremy Renner, who later dies while skydiving to the show, or backup guest Armie Hammer who succumbs to a snakebite just a few yards away from the studio. Like the dummy standing in for Renner, the joke falls a little flat but it's in keeping with the tone of the show. The same goes for an extended gag about fighting with an American audience over who has the best Air Force, or when NASCAR driver Mike Skinner steps in for the Stig (guess the BBC got to keep him in the divorce) and plays the part of a stereotypical American. Thankfully, most of the jokes are meant to address the newness of The Grand Tour and to remind everyone that the changes are cosmetic at best.
Some changes go a little deeper, like the new track, which has been given the moniker "The Eboladrome" because its shape looks like the Ebola virus, but that's about as far as it goes. Overall, the first episode has the look, sound, and feel of its predecessor down to such a fine degree it's hard to imagine anyone going back now that Clarkson, Hammond, and May have established themselves someplace else. In the end, fans can rest assured Top Gear hasn't gone anywhere, it's just hiding out at Amazon under a different name.
The Grand Tour continues next Friday on Amazon Prime as the team heads to Johannesburg.