Since the departures of Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond, Top Gear has been in a state of flux, as the BBC and the show’s producers have brought in various hosts in an attempt to reproduce the unique onscreen alchemy of the opinionated, sometimes controversial, and typically very funny gearheads, who’ve since found a new home at Amazon with The Grand Tour. Needless to say, it’s been something of a bumpy road for the series, as the past few years have seen Chris Evans (not “America’s ass” Chris Evans, but rather the British TV presenter and DJ), Eddie Jordan, Rory Reid, Sabine Schmidt, and perhaps most famously, former Friends star Matt LeBlanc step up to fill the shoes of the show’s departed frontmen.
At the start season 27, Top Gear once again has new hosts to introduce, in the form of comedian and TV host Paddy McGuinness and former cricket star and TV presenter Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff, who have joined returning co-host and motoring journalist Chris Harris for the show’s latest new look. To the series’ credit, as well as the new hosts’, Top Gear addresses the change outright, having Flintoff compare the revolving door of presenters to Doctor Who’s frequent casting changes via the character’s regeneration. But while the show itself, as well as McGuinness and Flintoff, are quick to acknowledge the way in which their newness will take some getting used to, the season premiere makes the wise decision to settle into a comfortable Top Gear-like routine, as a way of assuaging viewers’ concerns.
More than that, however, the season 27 premiere ingratiates the new hosts to the show’s sizable (and presumably still devoted) audience by adhering to the comedy-meets-earnest-admiration-for-foreign-locales format popularized by the guys whose names are still synonymous with Top Gear.
It works, for the most part. Season 27 is deliberate in its efforts to get the hosts out into the world where their team spirit can perhaps flower into the kind of bromance that will sustain the series for another few years. It’s a smart move, as Flintoff in particular appears more at ease when he’s actively engaged in driving around, waxing nostalgic about a Porsche Boxster, or competing in one of the episode-specific challenges meant to determine which host chose the best car (or rather, which host’s personal history dictated the best car) for the trek through Ethiopia and into the Danakil Depression.
The premise of the trip is simple, and it affords the trio a chance to engage in a seemingly organic “getting to know you” exercise, in which each presenter must purchase the type of car that was the first car they ever owned. This leads to some interesting driving situations, with Harris tooling around in a Mini Cooper, while McGuinness is behind the wheel of a Ford Escort, and Flintoff — being a professional cricket player at a very young age — drives the aforementioned Boxster. It all makes for a necessary surface-level introduction for audiences who might not be familiar with McGuinness’s past work and especially those in the States whose exposure to the sport of cricket is likely extremely limited, to say the least. But as the journey through Ethiopia is more about finding out how the personalities of these three men will result in some entertaining (and limitedly informational) situations, it turns out to be exactly what the show needs.
There’s a performative aspect to Top Gear (and The Grand Tour), wherein the audience is asked to suspend disbelief and allow that many of the situations and competitions are the result of spontaneity and the hosts being “on the road,” and the season 27 premiere certainly takes advantage of that. This results in a collection of challenges that are entertaining enough (particularly one where Paddy, Freddie, and Chris must drive on an airstrip blindfolded and try to get as close as possible to a stationary target), but as is sometimes the case with Top Gear, (and, again, The Grand Tour) they have little to do with the episode’s chosen locale. While the hosts do get out of their cars long enough to play some foosball with a few locals, the episode itself spends too little time with people from the region, much less making exploring what life is like there outside of commenting on its stunning scenery.
It’s easy enough to say that Top Gear isn’t really a travel show and therefore isn’t beholden to the kinds of cultural explorations one might expect from similar series, but the arm’s length at which the show often holds its chosen setting does feel especially glaring when a second segment compares two supercars (a McLaren 600LT and a Ferrari 488 Pista) with price tags equivalent to a modest single family home. Nevertheless, given the changes the show has undergone in recent years, it’s easy to see why producers would be eager to keep its content as familiar to the audience as possible, maximizing the car-centric shenanigans and focusing on the burgeoning and believable camaraderie of its new hosts.
That “steady as it goes” approach proves useful in the series premiere and many of the new season’s episodes that follow, as McGuinness, Flintoff, and Harris’s various personalities and areas of expertise begin to gel, and their interactions feel more natural and consistent. For now, it’s the beginning of a new era of Top Gear, one that will hopefully last long enough for the series to feel as distinct and entertaining as it has in the past.
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Top Gear continues next Sunday @8pm on BBC America.