Is The Grand Tour better than Old Top Gear?

It’s the burning question on every car fanatic’s lips. Is new Top Ge-… sorry, The Grand Tour better than it's predecessor? It left critics raving after a triumphant return in Episode 1.

At AutoeBid, we love what we've seen so far, and will update this article after each episode.

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Episode 5 . . .

It's becoming harder to distinguish between the episodes. The episode 5 feature is perhaps too similar to episode 3 in terms of content; three cars in a seemingly aimless meander across a country, broken up with some arbitrary tests in which we learn basically nothing. It's not that it isn't entertaining; it just isn't ground-breaking and feels a little lazy. The 'story' (two of them later 'surprised' by being joined by the third), was much the same as two weeks ago.

The most memorable segment (where Clarkson tried to 'weigh' the cars using cattle as a counter-weight) produced some great reactions, further supporting our theory that much of the contrived elements lead to the organic stuff we all like. It's just that we can't help but wonder what else they could have done instead of this overlong section (where the highlight was James May's off-the-cuff remark about testicles).

The highlight of the episode (by far) was the Car Battleships game. The wanton destruction caused by the G-Wizs being dropped from a crane onto a selection of equally hideous cars, was unmatched by anything else.

Although it's becoming tedious to mention Celebrity Brain Crash each week, it's worth noting that it was another dire joke that fell flat. Quite who this feature is supposed to appeal to is a mystery, and if it's meant to get funnier each week, it fails. Perhaps it serves best as two fingers to Auntie Beeb, but isn't that what the millions of pounds extra on production are meant to do?

It's unfair to expect new, groundbreaking stuff each week. We wouldn't have expected it of old Top Gear, and while this is meant to make an impression, we don't want them to use up all their ideas at once. With another 7 episodes to go, it's the longest series they've ever done. Far from being tired of it, we can't wait to see what else is in store!

Episode 4 . . .

The live links from Episode 4 of The Grand Tour were once again filmed in Whitby. This was good. Perhaps it should stay in England; after all, much of the humour and the presenters themselves are quintessentially British. It's true to say the tent scenes abroad seem more awkward, but we'll reserve judgment.

The feature was, once again, something we haven't seen before in quite this iteration. For the first time in The Grand Tour, 'fantasy cars' that Clarkson, Hammond and May had 'built' were the centre of attention. This time, a literal twist on 'ecological cars'. May's was made of mud brick, Hammond's was made of plants, and Clarkson's was made of bone and eventually (in yet another macabre twist), decaying meat.

It harked back to the spirit that was first seen in Top Gear features like the amphibious cars. Yes, the over-scripting is wearying, and all too often you find yourself waiting for the extreme scenarios to produce happy deviations from the script. Somehow, despite this wait, it's a satisfying watch. Sure, nobody is seeing Jeremy's meat car as anything other than the forced comedy it's meant to be, but it produces some great genuine reactions. Similarly, the moment James May has to drive his car of bricks through the water was always going to produce unscriptable comedy gold.

Perhaps then, it is the cost of each scene that forces them to be over-reliant on scripts. Be that as it may, Clarkson and co are not actors and the sooner they stop trying to be, the better.

It also seems they will hammer the celebrity death feature to, well . . . death. This week, we saw 30 seconds of a distant Jimmy Carr on a jet-ski. Is this satisfying in any way? No.

There was an element of the ludicrous about it (nothing on Ep 2, mind), but over all, episode 4  was another satisfying installment.

Episode 3 . . .

Episode 3 of The Grand Tour was back on form.

While we still don't fully understand the 'celebrity deaths' vignette, it's clearly an in-joke around the idea that the BBC own the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car idea. That, or maybe the track is just too heavy to take on tour. Either way, we can forgive it this. Maybe they will get funnier with time . . . though we don't hold out too much hope. Ultimately, it does just feel like a waste of a booking.

The show's main feature was maybe the best yet, seeing them partake in a real 'Grand Tour' across Europe. Funny, and filled with great ideas, the team have certainly fallen back into their old rhythm. They each had their character - Hammond assuming his usual role as the lout, May the pompous gent, and Jeremy the . . . well, Jeremy. There were natural jokes surrounding the scripted stuff, and that in itself made the episode.

Filmed in Whitby, the return to England (the north especially) was bound to make the episode a little bit more special for us Brits. There was a fantastic atmosphere, and the show felt right at home.

Speaking of homes - the final clip of Clarkson's 'house' being destroyed worked really well. It was real, unfaked chaos, and very watchable. It was well incorporated into the show's story (being set up in week one) which was a nice touch. Even so, it probably pains most of us to see perfectly good house torn down. The house, apparently a second (third, fourth?) home that Jeremy wants to redevelop was scheduled for demolition and incorporated into the show.

All in all, Episode 3 was the best yet, and we hope it keeps on in the same vein.

Episode 2 . . .

The opinion was divided on Episode. A far cry from the immediate praise lavished on Episode 1.

What we thought was a one-time skit about the ‘Star in a reasonably priced car’ feature had bite (literally, in the case of the snake). It was surprising, then, to see it back again in Episode 2. Especially in the same form (celebrities 'dying'). Where it originally seemed to be a play on them not being allowed to do that feature anymore (by whatever powers that bind it to the BBC format), by week two it really had run its course. Let’s hope they ditch this soon!

While many loved the Aston Martin review and South African-leveled banter, the show's main feature sequence got a fair bit of negative attention. It saw the trio partake in an SAS-style (we use the term loosely) dalliance. With unlimited re-spawns a la Call of Duty a running joke, farce was taken to new levels. Some compared it to the staler ideas in the later series’ of old Top Gear. Perhaps it’s not that simple though . . .

Cars were deliberately cast to one side of this sequence, in favour of (you guessed it) guns. While that may not seem the most unnatural substitution, for obvious reasons, it quickly became the most clearly ‘scripted’ of anything we’ve seen from them.

They also played openly with the idea of scripting and camera trickery with a meta ‘consciousness’ we’ve not really seen before. The stunts were there, the budget was there, the ideas were (sort of) there, and eventually, the cars returned too . . . Does this mean it's just not what people want to see from them?


Scripting . . .

It’s not that we don’t know that Grand Tour/Top Gear are/were heavily scripted; it’s that we like to believe they’re not. In their finest moments, we feel we are actually seeing them as themselves. It would be naive and ill-informed to declare such naturalism is easier to achieve.

To be naturalistic and have the necessary structure is more difficult than either or. But it does beg the question: do they know what works best? If the SAS feature is anything to go by, it seems maybe not.

In the rare moments during the extended expeditions (America and Antartica spring to mind), they're just three friends having a laugh. These fleeting moments, for us at least, represent the best of the trio, and if there were a way to inspire more, it would be welcome.

Episode 1 . . .

As Clarkson might say in one of his reviews, it was 'off to a flying start'. Everything felt fresh, sort-of. This was partly down to the ‘new’ formula. But then, when you’re forced to reinvent the wheel, things still come out looking rather wheel-shaped.

That said, the boys were back in town, and the opening montage couldn’t have set the tone better. Clarkson’s exit from the BBC building in dreary England, before being joined by Hammond and May in sunny America was a powerful and (dare we say it) poignant return.

It was by no means the only ‘nod’ to the news story we all know so well, with in-jokes throughout episode one. The words ‘fracas’ (only used prior to Clarkson’s punch-up during a boating accident in the 50s) and ‘steak’ were unsaid, but everything else was good game. And if we can bear to remember Chris Evans’ obviously-set-up catering joke (which was the first and last ‘funny’ thing on the BBC’s new Top Gear), this is no bad thing.

It was probably also down to it having been so long since we’ve seen the trio. It was 28 June 2015 when they last graced our screens, with that final (awkward) ‘elephant in the room’ episode. This, of course, was after Clarkson was sack-… after his contract wasn’t renewed. A joke the trio were all-too-keen to hammer home in the opening bars of episode one.

Also, for any of us who sat through the dirge that is the new BBC Top Gear (we only made it 30 mins into episode two), it demonstrated there is a true art to writing and presenting. Seeing Clarkson, Hammond and May’s deft hands return to the helm, (sorry, steering wheel), was nothing short of watching artists at work.

So, when episode two was released last Friday (26 November), the world waited with bated breath to see if lightening could strike twice.

We love . . .

We love the ‘Eboladrome’. After the laugh-out-loud gag, it remains full of quirks, and is a fresh take on the Top Gear circuit. While The American isn’t The Stig (different enough, presumably, for them not to be sued), it remains to be seen how long he stays fresh for. Maybe, in hindsight, one of The Stig’s virtues was his silence. But so far so good, and we can’t wait to see what happens.

Also, we can’t mention the SAS feature from Ep. 2 without mentioning Ep. 1’s brilliant three car challenge. Break or no break, this harks back to Top Gear at its very best. Sure, some of it was a little set up, but it always was, and it didn’t stop us loving it then.

Similarly, the car reviews have the timeless quality they’ve always had. They are the backbone of the show, and it’s hard to lose what they’re ‘really’ about. The odd production twist keeps them interesting, and the car manufacturers do the rest.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between old and new is the onus on sheer entertainment in the linking segments. These seem longer now, and the introduction of an actual stage encourages a more 'them-and-us' feel. We now see, in an obvious way, that they are the entertainers, on a stage doing what it is they do best.

All in all . . .

It comes down to the personalities. Whatever the BBC may or may not own, they can't replicate the chemistry that occurs between three friends. Hammond, Clarkson and May offset each other perfectly and ultimately whatever show they ended up making, their DNA would be all over it. Whether it's cars, guns or demolitions it's still going to be the three of them with their love/hate friendship. And we love to watch it.

Over all, The Grand Tour is certainly driving in the right direction and we can’t wait to see more!

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