Second Lap of The Grand Tour
Sometimes the second time around isn’t quite as satisfying and your first go, and that is sort of how the second Season of the Grand Tour has turned out. Available through Amazon streaming, this show follows the adventures of the trio of Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond as they test out cars, visit exotic locations, call each other rude names, and get into a fair bit of trouble. It’s a tried and true package that served them well for almost 22 season of Top Gear on the BBC, and it has mostly survived intact into the second season of the Grand Tour.
However, it’s not really quite that simple, nor quite that pleasurable this time around. One of the things that the old Top Gear show had going for it was it’s well worn groove that it ran in, 22 seasons of doing it mostly one way had refined the package down to something that was just this side of good quality moonshine. It took a while for them to get it right, but once it was right, they rode that groove until Clarkson sort of buggered it up. After getting booted from the Beeb for any number of reasons, the trio ended up with a new show on Amazon.
The first season was pretty much a solid win, except for a few things. In fact, a number of features from the successful first season were scrapped. Celebrity Brain Crash (which turned out to be nothing more than an excuse to “kill” a celebrity each week) wasn’t as popular as they expected, and Mike Skinner as the American testing the cars sort of didn’t click in the same way that the mysterious Stig had done on Top Gear. So those two elements needed revision.
The other part of the second season was that was a little messed was that with a serious injury to Richard Hammond, and Clarkson getting pneumonia, the amount of travel as a group of three was seriously limited. Hammond being on crutches and / or a wheelchair for much of the series was a recurring theme in many of the films. I think that in some cases, this took away from some of the resulting scenarios that they build.
The replacements for the two elements above were a fail. Mike Skinner was replaced by a woman racing driver, who they careful avoided naming at all. They didn’t mention her real name, they didn’t give her a stage name, they didn’t even give her a moniker beyond “driver”. Abby Eaton is a hell of a good driver and super consistent, without the obnoxious American pandering insults that were Mike Skinner’s role. However her silence wasn’t so much Stig like as much as like she had a gag over her mouth, at least mentally. The presenters couldn’t even bring themselves to say her name. Very weird.
The celebrity thing (which was really just a quick 4 or 5 minute gag) was replaced by actually celebrities running a really nice car over a rally cross track. It’s fairly poorly done, however: 2 celebs each week, matched for some attribute (like 80s TV stars, rock band drummers, etc), and the whole process took way too long to do. In Episode 7, as an exmaple, the piece ran for 13 minuntes out of the 63 full run time – or about 20% of the show’s run time.
The other thing lacking this year was car reviews of any sort. The old Top Gear shows pretty much always had some new car getting flogged around their course followed by the Stig putting a fast lap in. This season they seemed determined to get away from that, which made the “Driver” lapping pieces seem a little disconnected. it seems that season 2 was much more about personality and a lot less about cars. Not sure that is good.
Generally the peak of the season is aa massive full episode film. Last year it was a two episode tromp across Africa in ill equipped dune buggies, along the way discovering how truly amazing the area was. This year the premise sounded noble, trying to come up with ways to move fresh fish 200 miles into the interior of Mozambique. Unfortunately, this piece sort of ran into a couple o truly basis problems: At least some of the humor was predicated on the poverty of the place they were in, and in a country where food inland is quite hard to find, they managed to waste a whole bunch of fish.
The other part is that the vehicles used and the setup of how they would move fish was a little too obviously contrived. James May as an example had a Mercedes wagon with the entire back placed with a giant fish tank, with water filter, air pumper, and all. But the tank was much too large (entire area of the back with the seats folded down) and seemingly intentionally poorly built so that every time he had to stop quickly, huge amounts of water would slosh out of the tank and onto May (and the car). It was a bad system to move the fish a mile, let alone carry them 200 miles in land over rutted dirty tracks, slimy mud, and steep climbs. The “solutions” for the other two were basically just as silly, contrived, and planned to create problems and ultimately fail.
The problem? it was too obvious. They tried to address this sort of thing by having an episode where the road trip was “totally unscripted” but was rather well too scripted in it’s unscriptiness. That episode left me with a little bit of the old Johnny Rotton “do you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”. It struck me, especially after watching how well most of the 22 season of Top Gear went, as more than a little boorish and self-amusing. It really hit me like they were both trying too hard to be clever, and at the same time not really giving a crap how the audience took it. It sort of felt like they had already gotten paid and were just punching the clock.
In the end, the improvements for season 2 were, for the most part, not improvements. The celebrity thing is way too long, it’s 20% of the total series and really not a whole lot of fun to watch (After the first couple, I only skimmed this part in remaining episodes. If this was broadcast or cable TV, there is a good chance I would have been swapping channels looking for something more interesting to fill my relaxing time.
The driver segments I think also show how they have varied too far away from what worked. There was no real individual car test in the first episode, there was no driver fast lap, Right there, they have lost one of the things that made the show so enjoyable to a car enthusiast. Watching Jeremy slam cars around in lurid opposite lock drifts while spewing out witty insults and snark on the engineers, the company, and so on was a highlight of top gear. It’s something we didn’t get enough of this year.
The most important part is the contrived nature of the films. As an example, when reviewing eco friendly electricc cars, there were scenes of the cars running out of power or needing a charge. Reportedly, it was a big “setup” for a whole chunk of the film. However, the cars maker says that when they reviewed the data on the car (and the car retains a lot of data), they could see that the car started the day out without being recharged and had a fairly low charge level. The car running out of power was done as a set up to the whole “there isn’t any charging stations around here” bit. A little too forced. Their response? Well, one episode this year has a whole film that is apparently “unscripted” so the three of them were doing different things. But it was so scripted, that claims to be unscripted is just hard to swallow.
To sum up season 2 of the Grand Tour, I would call it “forced”. The celebrity part is very forced, like they are trying to gets closer to the old Top Gear celebrity lap without duplicating it, but for me it took over too much of the show. This time had to be taken away from more film or more reviews of cars. Two less episodes isn’t helpful either. It was just getting started and it was over. I want more, and now we have to wait. I guess that means I like it.
UPDATE March 11, 2018: According to this story in the Mirror, Amazon has already decided not to renew The Grand Tour past the original commitment of 3 seasons. While I couldn’t find any confirmation, it would sort of make sense. Whatever bump Amazon got in Prime streaming customers has already happened. While there is no indication, it’s quite possible that the whole team could just take the concept on a “grand tour” of it’s own to another outlet.