In an age where Donald Trump can become President of the United States, it’s sadly fitting that English reality host Jeremy Clarkson had to flee to America to keep doing whatever the hell he wants. You see, the former “Top Gear” host’s contract wasn’t renewed by the BBC because of not one, but many controversial incidents involving the volatile “car journalist” (self-described), including accusations ranging from jokes about murdering prostitutes and imitating a Nazi salute to tossing around so many ethnic slurs it seems as though he’s offended every race and gender imaginable.
But what put him over the line across the pond was a March 2015 altercation with Oisin Tymon in which he allegedly punched the “Top Gear” producer for serving him soup and a meat platter instead of steak. Despite protests from fans (including a petition garnering over 1 million signatures), the BBC stood by their decision not to re-up Clarkson’s contract — perhaps because this wasn’t the first time he’d been accused of assault (he left Piers Morgan with a scar) — and here we are, watching a new version of “Top Gear” titled “The Grand Tour,” but otherwise identical to Clarkson’s incredibly successful car show.
Opening with the host walking out of his London residence as reports of his dismissal from “Top Gear” play in the background, “The Grand Tour” quickly escorts Clarkson to Los Angeles, hopping off the plane and into a shiny blue muscle car (parked, unprotected, at LAX). He flees the city limits (rather too quickly to be believed given L.A. traffic) to a cover of “I Can See Clearly Now” by “The Hot House Flowers,” who are playing a “Burning Van” festival in the desert where fans and friends — specifically, co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May — are waiting for their unjustly persecuted hero to reclaim his throne.
And that’s exactly what he does. “The Grand Tour” barely bothers to hide that it’s recreating “Top Gear” with the same hosts and a great deal more money. Highlights for the season are laid out via montage early on, and the first episode features three million-dollar cars, a crazy amount of travel, and plenty of footage showing your three hosts goofing around without a care in the world.
Speaking to specifics, “The Grand Tour” features a “traveling studio tent” with a giant clear backdrop to showcase the various geographical venues they’ll be visiting over the 12 episodes in Season 1. The set is populated with a studio audience, ready to respond to provocation at the drop of a pin, and looks very much like the old “Top Gear” digs. Beyond the setting, The Stig — “Top Gear’s” always-helmeted driver — has been replaced by “The American,” a red, white, and blue-clad Mike Skinner who spouts typical American phrases and slang while whipping his chosen car around the track. They even bring on not one, but two celebrity guests. I won’t spoil who here, though fans shouldn’t expect them to do much driving.
It’s all captured with an addictive pacing and excitable energy familiar to anyone who’s caught a few “Top Gear” episodes in the past. And that’s the gist, really: Clarkson, Hammond, and May’s chemistry and on-camera talent can’t be denied. They are very good at what they do, and the show itself would be innocent fun for car buffs and reality fans alike.
But the question “The Grand Tour” invites in, with its brash mockery of past controversy, is how comfortable you are watching arrogant, wealthy, white men traverse the globe in insanely expensive toys and behaving like 12-year-old boys. You’ll be able to gauge your tolerance quickly, perhaps based solely on the introduction. After arriving at “Burning Van,” the three men revel in their bad boy personas by introducing themselves via “credits” of how many times they’ve been fired before. Hammond and May have a long string of dismissals, but Clarkson is “technically the only one never to be fired by anyone.”
And yet here he is, in America, making loads of money not for his expertise in the field — which isn’t in question — but for his personality, which is, at the very least, problematic. It’s not that we feel comfortable condemning a man we’ve never met, but this a reality show meant to be guiltless fun for the whole family and is instead jaded by off-screen situations we wouldn’t want our kids to consider.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos described the budget for “The Grand Tour” as “very, very, very expensive,” adding, “They’re worth a lot, and they know it.” Well, there’s only one way to bring down that value, and that’s not to watch. It’s in your hands, America.