How many times can you do the same car reviews, insults, quirky challenges and general buffoonery before it stops being fun? Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May have been on a mission to find out exactly that for over 15 years and through 24 series. They built up the format at BBC’s Top Gearand then stretched the limits of intellectual property law to bring something pretty similar to Amazon in the form of The Grand Tour.
Technically The Grand Tour shouldn’t have had any growing pains, even in its first season. The trio have been doing the same things for years and now had more money to burn. It should have been an easy transition. Except it didn’t quite work out. Season 1 was patchy with little sparks of brilliance sprinkled in between. With BBC’s Top Gear spiralling into a disaster without the trio, fans wondered if it was the end of the ride.
Still, the trio are tied to a three-season deal so Season 2 was a given. When the first episode dropped late last year, it seemed like the show had listened to its audience. Gone was the irritating “American” and a more Stig-like figure appeared as the test driver. “Celebrity Brain Crash” was mercifully dead and a promising segment called “Celebrity Face Off” took its place.
In today’s binge-obsessed world, it did seem strange when The Grand Tour followed the archaic model of dropping an episode a week. While initially irritating, the genius of the move was quickly apparent. There is no way someone would binge this series without getting bored because the episodes are far too similar. Giving the option of watching one episode after another was a sure-fire way of invoking monotony in audiences.
This show simply cannot be binged
Now, the fact that a show cannot be watched in one long sitting can hardly be a positive. And indeed the lack of an overarching narrative or even a clear connecting thread between the episodes means that you won’t be drawn to it constantly the way you would be to say a Stranger Things. But frankly, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad show.
The Grand Tour is no one’s idea of great television. It is not peak TV, it is not high art. It is quite simply a show about three idiots driving expensive vehicles and insulting each other. They have a massive following and simply have no reason to change a formula that has worked well over the years.
Thus Season 2 opened with the three picking three cars representing the past (petrol), present (hybrid) and future (electric) and putting them through “tests”. The entire episode was a build-up to Hammond’s crash which nearly killed him. It had the now painfully obvious shades of sexism and was up and down the entire time. Celebrity Brain Crash was strictly ho-hum as David Hasselhoff was too wooden and Ricky Wilson was too much of a nobody.
The pattern continued through the entire season. There was the standardcar vs other transport segment, a segment about a very fast car and the luxurious life, a tribute to old cars. It wasn’t all that different from what we had seen before. If this was all the show offered, I would have no compunctions telling you to skip it entirely.
Except… it just manages to do that little bit more.
Take for instance episode 10 where the trio go out to prove that small SUVs are useless. There are the obligatory timed laps of course. But to test the utility of the Sports Utility Vehicles, they bring out huge Newfoundlands and see how many they can fit in the boots of the cars (the answer is zero). Then they try to lug a boat over a mountain where of course everything goes wrong as Clarkson destroys his boat, Hammond is hopelessly late and May drowns. It was classic Top Gear where they are rather incompetent at most things.
We also saw the long overdue Tesla review. All Tesla cars are flat-out fun and are astonishing feats of technology. Putting an orangutan like Clarkson in the driver’s seat of one was a match made in heaven and he proves that, as from all the fantastic features in the car, he seems to like the sketch pad the best.
There was also the magnificent Mozambique special. Each of the three picked out their choice of vehicle to transport fish from the coast to the hinterland. There are a lot of accidents, falls and no great result in the end. But the framing of the episode was brilliant as they constantly keep referring to celebrities known for their charity work and pointing out how they aren’t doing the (literal) heavy lifting. It all just clicks together and there are a ton of laughs in the episode.
A show which asks little of you
The Grand Tour then is only slightly better than its first season. It is still patchy, delivering unexpected laughs mixed with a lot of cringeworthy moments. Celebrity Face Off is too dependent on the celebrities themselves but when some of them (like former WWE wrestler Goldberg or magic duo Penn & Teller) acquit themselves well, it makes for a neat segment.
In the end, the show just wants to make it easy for the audience. It requires little to no brains to follow, you don’t need to remember any plotlines and a mental age of about eight is required to watch it. After initially disliking it, the show became something I looked forward to after a gruelling day at work. Because sometimes you don’t want to invest yourself in an Altered Carbon or a Dark. You just need Clarkson, Hammond and May bickering over things, breaking stuff and generally being stupid. And if there is something they have proven consistently, being stupid is something they are really, really good at.