‘The Grand Tour’ is no ‘Top Gear’

Richard Hammond, James May and Jeremy Clarkson are back

A still from ‘The Grand Tour’
A still from ‘The Grand Tour’

The boys are back in town.

By “boys” I mean, naturally, the three old men who stubbornly refuse to grow up and by “town” I mean all our television sets, but here returneth the car show that has always, honestly, been more conversation show than car show. Richard Hammond, James May and the proud (and only) enfant terrible of automotive television presenters, Jeremy Clarkson, are all here for another go-around, complete with hypercar wheelspin, drag races on a track shaped like a lethal virus, and a tame racing driver. Everything is in place. Just don’t call it Top Gear.

Top Gear, a BBC phenomenon that won a Guinness record for hitting the astonishing global viewership of 350 million, was always a show about three men having fun. One of those men, the outspoken and defiantly obnoxious Clarkson, had been having a bit too much fun for a while, and following a drunken punch-up where he assaulted a BBC producer, was rightly let go by the network. It all sounds rather ignominious till you remember that we live in a world where oafishness is now rewarded—especially by the Americans. In a manner similar to picking a president, Amazon has taken Clarkson and the band across the pond and given them an enormous canvas and much bigger crayons—in eye-watering ultra-high definition.

Now, you might have to wait till December to watch what I’m writing about here—when Amazon Video launches in 200 territories across the world, including India—or you could use a clever VPN to trick Amazon into thinking you’re in the US/UK (nudge-nudge-wink-wink) but don’t let the delay stop you from reading ahead. The only spoilers in a show like this are DRS-equipped dorsal fins on the back of scarlet supercars.

The new show—titled, rather uncatchily, The Grand Tour—opens with extravagant spectacle. Clarkson unceremoniously leaves a grey office building, handing in his badge and strolling out to the sounds of hissy sound bites (the building itself looks very much like the one we see in W1A, the terrific comedy about working at the BBC, available on Netflix right now). He strolls into a parking garage, picks up a bright blue Rocket and, as the music becomes cheerier, is joined by his two chums in red and white stylized Rockets of their own.

Three Mustangs then—in the colours of the Union Jack and of the Stars and Stripes—sail merrily toward an armada of aggressively thrilled vehicles in a California desert, revving up like a Fury Road festival. The scale—and the way the whole shebang looks in 4K—is something special. The budget is loony but the fact that this show is not on traditional television might turn out to be the biggest game changer. “We are on the Internet,” says Clarkson, “Which means I could pleasure a horse.”

First they must pleasure an audience, and the opening episode aims to do this via a three-car showdown where the hybrid hypercars of the future—the McLaren P1, the Porsche 918 and the Ferrari LaFerrari—brutalize each other. For the record—since “fastest car” matters lesser as we get even a wee bit older—the P1 appears maniacal and the Porsche stunning. The LaFerrari, however, is the wet dream among the bunch and the moment it is unveiled, is pure cargasm.

That is what the old BBC show always did best. It fetishized these objects of unaffordable gorgeousness, these impractically priced indulgences nobody with a conscience and an entirely honest living could buy, yet ones that we all could—nay, should—covet. The whole point was to see these unremarkable chaps driving these astonishing beauts. As Led Zeppelin would say, the song remains the same.

What has changed, besides the scale? For one, the show is now a travelling circus housed in a giant and imperious tent, situated in California one week, Johannesburg the next. Secondly, the new test track looks like something drawn up by fiendish and sadistic 14 year olds and, designed to mimic the shape of the lethal ebola virus, is thus the greatest track—in the world. Finally, the tame racing driver isn’t anonymous anymore; he is instead a NASCAR veteran called Mike Skinner who sneers at non-V8 engines and is referred to, quite sneeringly, as The American.

There is some rust. The two pre-written gags—one involving dead celebrities, one involving a rioting studio audience—go on too long, as does the episode itself, weighing in at a watch-glancing 70 minutes. The cars are fine but Clarkson himself, who used to possess the cheek and verbal aplomb of a juvenile P.J. O’Rourke, sounds a bit hapless as he drives a BMW M2 and, twice in the same segment, calls it the best M-series car in history without bothering to rephrase the line into something sly. This turns out also to be the slowest M-series car, further showing how—even to Clarkson—raw speed might not matter as much anymore.

Perhaps, however, they’re lulling us in before unleashing true havoc. The montage at the head of The Grand Tour does promise explosions and machine-guns and carnage on a truly cinematic scale. You’d be best advised to buckle up. And to lock up your foals.

Stream of stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen.

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