A ‘Grand Tour’ Fan Confession: I Liked ‘Top Gear’ Series 24

What’s a Grand Tour fan to do when their new favorite car show in on a break? Enjoy the latest Top Gear series. It’s okay. Really. Image: Lisa Kay Tate. Photos © BBC and Amazon.

Fandom loyalty is a weird beast, for sure.

In today’s world, everyone feels they need to “choose a side” and defend it to no end, whether be it political affiliation or sports. This is something most of us come to expect, but what about those crazy fandom loyalties we hold?

Star Trek or Star Wars? Which Batman do you follow? Who’s your Doctor (Who)? What Hogwarts house to you belong to? Marvel or DC? Team Cap or Team Iron Man? Should Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen get the throne…or neither?

I have an answer to all of these, but we Ravenclaws have far more important things to worry about than these trifles. All silliness aside, we take our fandoms way too seriously today, don’t we?

I feel it takes a lot of humility let go of our tightly held bias and loyalties to things which really make no impact on the grand scheme of the world. For example, I’ve been a very outspoken follower of the former Top Gear trio of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May. So much so, I even wrote Let Top Gear Die With Dignity once this trio and Top Gear parted ways a little more than  year ago.

I followed these hosts to Amazon Prime and on their Grand Tour, which I still feel was wonderfully entertaining and continue to recommend with enthusiasm. It wasn’t a perfect series, but I never expected it to be without flaws. I had no desire to watch the “new” Top Gear cast with Chris Evans, Matt LeBlanc and pretty much everyone else they could round up for good measure. I never watched more than a few minutes of it, to be honest.

Yet, I love “motoring shows,” and The Grand Tour’s first season came to an end in February. By the time spring came around, I was getting a bit antsy to see something new.

As such, while The Grand Tour took a breather, and the 24th series of Top Gear was made available on BBC America, I caved. The series is now sans Chris Evans, and pared down to the three best hosts from Series 23 —Matt LeBlanc, Rory Reid and Chris Harris. I decided to take a skeptical peek at their premiere, just to see if they knew what they were doing.

Guess what? I liked it! Not in a begrudgingly, “it’s okay” way accompanied by a non-committal shoulder shrug, but in an enthusiastic “Wow, this is really, really good,” way, followed with a pang of guilt for enjoying it so much.

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Both Amazon’s The Grand Tour and the latest series of Top Gear had more than enough incredible vehicles to keep motoring show fans happy year round. Images © Amazon and BBC

The most surprising thing about this series, which just wrapped up April 23, was it retained the Top Gear parts essential to keeping the show recognizable but didn’t try to mimic or replace any of the character reserved for the hosts who made it such a worldwide hit in the first place. In a way, it was like rebuilding a classic car with a new engine, but keeping the body intact.

There were those familiar elements fans of the “Classic” Top Gear would enjoy, such as:

Challenges. Pitting the three hosts against each other in races, endurance tests, creative re-imagining of vehicles, and other contests is still a Top Gear staple. The James Bond chase was one of the high points for me, as well as the extreme dune buggying.

Trash-talk. When you watch the first episode of Season 24, it’s easy to see why LeBlanc, Reid and Harris were the three chosen to host. Yes, they all know and love cars. Yes, they are excellent drivers (it still gives me little sense of patriotism that an American, LeBlanc, holds one of the top celebrity lap times). More than anything, though, they play well together. Top Gear fans watched for years because the Clarkson-Hammond-May combination was so successful. Now, these “new guys” are well on their way to getting their own thing going, and it is fun to watch.

Reviews. A car show wouldn’t be a car show without some reviews of vehicles the average consumer will never get their hands on in a million years, and this series didn’t change a thing. The hosts took some quip-filled critiques of cars like the very limited edition Ferrari FXX-K, the Renault Twinto GT, the retro-inspired Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, and the Fort GT. There really isn’t anything they could do to improve upon what the original trio had going in this sense, so this is just business as usual.

There were also some changes that made the show run smoother, most particularly the way they handled the celebrity guests. Celebrity interviews in of themselves aren’t very interesting to me, as they often just morph into an advertisement for some current project.

Instead of the standard one-on-one interview followed by the timed lap around the track for “Celebrity in a Reasonably Priced Car,” all three hosts are present for the to sit down with the weekly guest, who in turn gets to comment along on some current car-related items. We also get to see a little more of their practice time before the final lap, for what is now referred to as “Celebrity in a Reasonably Fast Car.”  If you watch only one of these, it was particularly hilarious when guest David Tennant had a go.

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If there’s one thing the new Top Gear has going for it, Stig, Sabine Schmidt (shown with Reid) and the other racers are so much more likable than The Grand Tour’s “American.” I don’t imagine we’ll be seeing this grumpy thing next season. Images © Amazon and BBC

The one thing that seemed amiss in this new series was The Stig.

His purpose seems a little less vital than in the past. LeBlanc and crew have graciously parted ways with the “Some say…” introduction, which really is something that needs Clarkson’s deft delivery to work, and he isn’t even training the celebrity guests any more. That duty has fallen to Harris, and his open disparaging of these guests during their practice rounds is brilliant. Full disclosure: it’s one of my favorite parts of the latest series.

As far as racing, they should let Sabine Schmidt take over that duty altogether. I wouldn’t mind for her to be in more shows, as her racing skills are matched by her unhidden enjoyment of the sport. It’s nice to see a face behind the helmet, for once.

I don’t want to see The Stig go, but it sure would be cool to see him find his way to his old posse new residing on Amazon. I’m pretty sure there’s going to be an opening for a driver, particularly after the biggest criticisms from first season’s Grand Tour were directed at their grumpy equivalent, Mike “The American” Skinner.

Either way, I’ve found myself happily enjoying both the “old guard” on their new show, as well as the new trio heading up the old series. Yet, somehow still loving the Clarkson, Hammond and May dynamic, but fully appreciating the camaraderie developing among LeBlanc, Reid and Harris, makes me feel bit, well, dirty. It’s as if I’m somehow a double agent for the BBC.

Am I being unfaithful to my fandom, or does it not count if they’re on “a break?” Actually, it really is simpler than that. Fandoms, despite what we tend to elevate them to, aren’t our religion. They, aren’t our significant other, and they aren’t meant to be our only choice of entertainment. I’ve mentioned in the past the Top Gear boys became like a “family,” to me, but the more you add around the table of family and friends, the more interesting the conversation.

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Clarkson, Hammond and May will always be my three favorite over-sized 13-year-olds to watch, but I don’t mind hanging out with these new guys for awhile. Images © Amazon and BBC

I didn’t throw away my treasured J.R.R. Tolkien book collection, because I bought a Game of Thrones set. I don’t hate The Avengers movies, just because I love The Guardians of the Galaxy. These are forms or escape and recreation, one area of my life we should be glad to mix up a little.

Thanks Mr. LeBlanc, for being so much fun while I wait for Mr. May and crew to return next season.

What about fandom loyalty? Will I still be looking forward to next season’s Grand Tour?

Of course, I will, without any hesitation. I haven’t stopped following these three on Twitter, Facebook, and their own Tumblr-esque site, DriveTribe. I’ll be packed and ready for the next Grand Tour, as will many of us fans, warts and all. There’s no question there.

The quandary for me is, do I still stand by my long, stubborn opinion that the “real” Top Gear is no more, and that the title should be retired like a well-known jersey of favorite player?

Well, I do think these boys will never be the original Top Gear, no matter how much heart and effort they put into that. There is no other, and will be no other “original” Top Gear.

However, I do cede, if this new team has another few series as fun and entertaining as this past one, they may, just may, earn the title of Top Gear: The Next Generation. Maybe.

The Grand Tour Season 2 returns this fall on Amazon Prime.

Top Gear is available on BBCAmerica.com.