How a Car Show Became a Train Wreck

Pop Culture

How a Car Show Became a Train Wreck

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

Thank God it’s finally over!

Of all the dramatic departures the English have staged in the last few weeks, whether at the European Union or Euro 2016, there was one that I was very glad to see. The new and beastly season of Top Gear, six episodes long (six episodes too long!), is mercifully over. Not that anyone expected much out of it, considering the show was primed for failure long before the first episode of the new season even aired.

It set records for the lowest viewership numbers Top Gear has ever seen, attracting fewer than four million viewers on home turf. If you think that’s a lot then know this: With the old hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, the show routinely drew in close to seven million. That’s three million people who hightailed out of this car crash faster than a Bugatti. The Beeb can try and convince itself that it is a “bigger global hit than the Jeremy Clarkson version” but even the suits must have got a hint that season 23 was total tosh. Matt LeBlanc looks set to bear the burden of the show solo in the next season (if there is one) after Chris Evans stepped down as the lead. (If anyone needed any confirmation that Chris Evans had a good face for radio, this was it.)

The lack of camaraderie between Evans and Le Blanc was tremendously awkward to watch. In one of the episodes, Matt LeBlanc had just finished reviewing the spanking Porsche 911. The segment had actually ended rather well; I could see a little bit of beloved Joey when LeBlanc shouted, “You better not eat my sandwich!” at the Stig as he drove away. Then, they cut back to the studio for the usual banter between the hosts, but this is how it unfolded:

Evans: “Happy?”

LeBlanc: “Yeah.”

Evans: “Yeah?”

LeBlanc: “I’m in my happy place.”

Evans: “You in your happy place? I can tell. Right. Good for him. Matt’s had his Porsche fix. Now, it’s time for my…”

That was it. That was the extent of the conversation about a Porsche 911 between the show’s leads. I thought about all the times Hammond must have driven a Porsche 911 around the track. It would inevitably end with Clarkson calling the wide-eyed Hamster an idiot. And it would be hilarious every single time.

I know I sound like a prissy fanboy, for whom the new Top Gear didn’t stand a chance without its controversial heroes, who often articulated in public what a lot of us would reserve for private conversation in the living room with close friends. You’re right; I am. They called Mexicans lazy, feckless, overweight, and flatulent; used the N-word once; and were once chased by a mob in Argentina after the number plates on their cars alluded to the Falklands War of 1982. Inappropriate? Frequently. Funny? As hell.

But this tightrope-walking was precisely what made Top Gear great. It was never really about the cars, or the fantastic production values, or the swooping aerial shots. It was just about three blokes who refused to grow up and were relentless in going one up on the others. Jeremy, the over-confident, impractical bellend who considers “Speed!” the answer to all problems in life; Hammond, the dynamo with a love for the countryside, bicycles, and American cars; and “Captain Slow” May, the shaggy-haired music graduate whose deadpan delivery led to some of the show’s funniest moments.

To replace this legendary, high-level nonsense, the BBC chose a radio jockey and a one-note American sitcom star.

The three of them could be driving to the mouth of an active volcano, or the North Pole, or crossing the entire friggin’ African continent in cheap cars and it would be funny. They could race against practically anything, including a Eurofighter Typhoon, a man in a jet pack, and God. They are also the only people I know who could make light of medical emergencies.

In one of the funnest episodes, the trio tried to build “ambulances” in their own mould. Clarkson obviously got a sports car; Hammond, a van; and May, a hearse, in case things didn’t work out. In a side-splittingly funny segment, they tried to get a patient to the hospital in the shortest time possible. Clarkson went in for the slingshot approach, skidding the car around until the stretcher rolled out due to centrifugal force. Hammond tried to eject the patient using an air cannon for extra speed, but owing to a small mishap, the patient shoots through a closed door into the side of another ambulance. “As you would expect” May almost “got it right”, building an autonomous sat nav-directed stretcher, which rolls out of the hospital almost as soon as it enters.

This. This is the kind of calculated buffoonery that you can’t invent. To replace this legendary, high-level nonsense, the BBC chose a radio jockey and a one-note American sitcom star. You know when a relative at a family gathering cracks unfunny jokes that no one laughs at, and you end up feeling embarrassed on their behalf? That was all of us, including the show’s live audience, watching joke after joke bomb on season 23.

The viewers have made their disdain for the new show quite clear, but perhaps the most damning indictment was delivered when a video of Clarkson assembling a cardboard box was deemed funnier than the new Top Gear. I’ll just wait for the tossers to reconvene in the Amazon show, The Grand Tour. Until then, there’s always Captain Slow’s Twitter feed to keep me entertained.