Review: The Grand Tour’s great, but can a bit more go wrong, please?

The Grand Tour is off to a great start but there’s something missing — a healthy heap of calamity.

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If there’s one thing The Grand Tour had going for it on its release, it was that it was always going to be compared with the new incarnation of Top Gear, and seeing how that was utter shite, Jeremy Clarkson’s newest venture was always going to come out favourably.

However, now the dust has settled and the image of Chris Evans’ ginger bonce nodding up and down excitedly as he bellows to camera about what you could expect in the next VT has faded, we can appreciate The Grand Tour for what it really is — faults and all.

While it may have been labelled “Top Gear on steroids” there seems to be a slight departure from the type of programming that made the trio of Clarkson, Hammond and May so unique and so likable. Sure, there’s lots of cars going very fast. Granted, there’s plenty of banter between the three. Yes, there’s a new track and a (semi) tamed racing driver.

But there’s one thing it’s been strangely lacking thus far. A colossal dosage of calamity. That was where the three really came to life: when they were attempting to build amphibious cars and drive them across the Channel; or when they chauffeured celebrities to the BAFTAs in self-made limousines; or that time they raced across Florida and annoyed just about everybody.

Yes, larking about in extremely fast cars is all well and good, but there’s only so many times you can watch three middle-aged men hurtle through pristine scenery in a car worth more than your house.

Perhaps it is something to do with the enormous budget gifted to them by Amazon. But sometimes it’s just terrific viewing to watch them tanking around some unremarkable part of the world in three crap cars, while everything goes wrong, Jeremy shouts, James gets annoyed and Richard crashes into things.

Thus far, and admittedly the series has only just begun, there’s not been enough of that utter stupidity and the impending feeling that everything is about to go absolutely tits up. That’s where the real funniness manifests.

The show is hardly a failure: the Celebrity Brain Crash section of the show is great, the camaraderie between the three is as strong as it ever was and visually the whole thing looks impeccable, but it’d be great to see the presenters in a less artificial setting, where there are no scripts to work off and the humour develops naturally, with as little cajoling as possible.

But there are signs it’s coming. The show touched upon this with the Jordan section – albeit that segment  was appalling and suffered from far too many planned events – and the montage from the first episode did show James May traversing a river in some godforsaken contraption that was rapidly falling apart.

A lot of people want the Top Gear of old back; and others want something bigger, more explosive and more expensive than that. Really, all it needs is a few more things going wrong.

Ranking every Top Gear special from worst to greatest

It’s only a few weeks now until the eagerly-awaited Grand Tour debuts on Amazon Prime, returning our beloved — if occasionally controversial — petrolhead heroes Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May to our TV screens.

And with the return of the iconic trio comes the restoration of spectacular road trips, the likes of which proved extremely popular during their Top Gear run. In total, eleven specials were produced over an eight-year period, and over the course of their run, morphed into two-hour epics that swallowed up two nights of viewing.

So popular were the specials that the Grand Tour threatens to be nothing but extended road trips full of calamity and chaos.

So, to prepare for the inevitable mayhem that is about to come, here’s every Top Gear special ranked in order from worst to greatest.

India Special (2011) 

The India Special arrived during a period in which Top Gear was suffering somewhat of a series slump. With the average viewership down from 7+ million in 2008-2009 to below 6 million in 2010-11, when watching the farcical trip across the Indian continent it’s not hard to see why.

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Largely directionless, the hour-long programme knitted together a series of woolly scenes around a weak premise (a British trade mission) and relied far too heavily on several instances of forced humour. There was the odd chuckle (like James May’s errant autonomous lawnmower going AWOL), but, on the whole, the India Special deservedly goes down as the worst effort produced by Wilman and the team.

Middle East Special (2010) 

This period of lacklustre programming also happened to include the next special on the list, the Middle East Special, which, although was a slightly sharper and tighter affair, still suffered from an over-dependence on engineered laughs.

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It contained a bit more of the camaraderie for which the three presenters are renowned, but a relatively exciting start soon tailed off into incessant meandering through uninspiring scenery, and sadly ended in a thoroughly underwhelming fashion as the three lads delivered presents to… Baby Stig. Sigh.

It speaks volumes when the best part was James May suffering a potentially threatening head injury…

Africa Special (2013) 

The African Special profited from a well-timed two year hiatus, being the first special since 2011’s Middle East venture, and it was far more reminiscent of classic Top Gear programming.

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The premise — which had been shaky in the Africa and Middle East specials — was far more stable, and presented the trio with the genuinely interesting challenge of locating the true source of the Nile. This produced a number of laughs and exciting moments along the way, which included the now-infamous “We’ve just come into Jezza!”, as well as Jeremy’s woeful attempt at utilising a log as a handbrake.

Winter Olympics (2006) 

The inaugural Top Gear special paved the way for the development of the feature, even if it didn’t quite follow the now-recognisable format.

It saw the trio attempt to run their very own Top Gear Olympics with a predictable serving of utter chaos and abject failure, as they fired a jet-propelled Mini down a ski slope, raced a bobsleigh against a rally car and participated in a thrilling motor biathlon.

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It was a solid special and the banter between Clarkson, May and Hammond at its absolute finest; Richard Hammond building a barrier out of chairs at the bottom of the wrong slope being a memorable moment of calamity.

Bolivia Special (2009) 

The Bolivia Special was an example of Top Gear at its finest. Set against a beautiful backdrop, the three boys blundered their way along a tortuous route and drove their 4x4s to the absolute limit.

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James May falling off a barge, Richard Hammond discovering a snake in his cab, the perilous trip along Death Road; and the epic final stretch when the boys barrelled down enormous sand dunes to the sea — this special had the lot.

Polar Special (2007) 

The Polar special followed on from the success of the Winter Olympics and USA specials, and by now had transformed into the classic format which was followed practically unto the end of the series’ run.

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James and Jeremy raced Hammond to the North Pole, car vs dog sled, in a contest fraught with peril (Polar bears and melting ice), tantrums (Richard Hammond) and gales of laughter (toilet-based shenanigans galore!). It was a truly epic piece of programming.

Patagonia Special (2015) 

It garnered infamy for the events that unfolded towards the end of the trip, but the Patagonia adventure was a pretty solid special in its own right, minus the unsavoury drama.

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The cars were magnificent, the trip took them through some spectacular vistas and there were a plethora of cock-ups along the route. The idea of ending up in Ushuia to play a car football match against Argentina also had the promise of sheer entertainment.

Sadly, it was all marred by a group of Argentine nationalists who perceived Jeremy’s licence plate to be a direct reference to the 1982 Falklands War. Thus, the episode ended with the presenters and crew being hounded out of the country amid scenes of violence.

Burma Special (2014)

Another of the two-hour instalments as opposed to the earlier 60-minute specials, the lorry trek across Burma was Top Gear at its best.

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Whether they were causing mayhem in Rangoon, playing football on a motorway or making an absolute pig’s ear out of building a bridge over the River Koq, the drama rattled along at a terrific pace.

It is simply one of the most epic adventures undertaken.

USA Special (2007) 

Despite its age, the USA road trip is still one of the finest specials to date. The premise of having to buy cars for less than it costs to hire them from the airport allowed for dozens of brilliant moments as the  boys took their £1000 rides all the way from Florida to New Orleans.

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There was American Stig, Jeremy’s love of Florida (“everybody’s very fat, everybody’s very stupid and everbody’s very rude”), the roadkill challenge, the alligator-infested wood, and — who can forget?! — the infamous run-in with the gang of rednecks on a petrol station forecourt in Alabama.

Pure brilliance from start to finish.

Botswana Special (2007) 

Who can forget Oliver? The relationship that bloomed between Richard Hammond and his terrific little car was nothing short of beautiful.

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In a trip that saw the trio cross Botswana in its entirety, in the most unfitting cars possible, the boys barely survived the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, and undertook a hilarious route through the stunning Okavango Delta.

Somehow, in their fleet of woefully-prepared road cars, all three presenters made it, genuinely against all the odds. If anyone wants to try and count the number of times Jeremy broke down, feel free — you’ll need a day off work it was that many!

Vietnam Special (2008) 

Okay, so it doesn’t technically involve any cars, but the Vietnam special is by far the most complete road trip Top Gear ever undertook.

From Jeremy’s initial reluctance to engage in riding anything that resembles a bike, the narrative develops into a astoundingly good road trip that contains everything you’d want from a TV show.

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The boys buy each other comedy gifts, purchase tailor-made cashmere suits, get on the wrong train, crash into things, fall off their bikes, encounter the most terrible traffic, soar along breath-taking mountain roads, and generally have a bloody good laugh.

And then, when you think it can’t get any better, they have to transform their bikes into boats and sail for the finish line amid the myriad of islands in Bahang Bay. Absolutely stupendous.

The Walking Dead is back to its emphatic best

For a show that established where the line should be then gleefully crossed it many, many episodes ago, it’s hard to believe The Walking Dead was capable of shocking us any further.

But, for viewers of the season 7 premiere, any semblance of preparation for the events about to unfold were summarily smashed and ground into the dirt in horrifyingly emphatic fashion.

It’s not as though fans of the series are unused to genuinely shocking moments. After all, over the seasons, the writers have developed an uncanny ability to play to the viewers’ fears whilst tugging on their heartstrings in an almost mocking fashion.

We’ve witnessed the much-loved Herschel beheaded at the hands of The Governor; endured Rick’s descent into madness as his wife, Lori, died during childbirth (and was subsequently eaten); watched Carol shoot twelve-year-old Lizzie following the murder of her own sister; and perhaps, most begrudgingly of all, sit through poor Sam Anderson’s grisly dismemberment at the hands of a horde of ravenous zombies.

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So, despite the introduction of Negan and the promise that season 7 would begin in the most spectacular of fashion, Walking Dead viewers were ready, right?

The Walking Dead played on our fears — and then some

One of our beloved main characters was set to feel the bite of Lucille, Negan’s trusty wire-clad baseball bat — that much was abundantly clear, and the months leading up to last night’s unveiling have been rife with speculation as to who.

Would it be Glenn, who’d already suffered a rather ignominious fake death earlier in the season? Could it be his wife, Maggie, who has the added emotional weight of pregnancy? What about Carl? That’s guaranteed to fuck Rick up. Or how about Daryl, the all-action, arse-kicking anti-hero?

In the end, The Walking Dead did what it does best; it drew out our fears, dangling the tantalising fruits of six months of speculation right before our eyes, before exploding them in much the same way as poor Abraham’s head did when it was he who fell victim to Negan’s ruthlessness.

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Yet, even as we watched in horror as Negan beat Abraham to a blood pulp, you couldn’t help but feel like the show was simply warming up. Abraham had his fans, for sure, but he wasn’t the “big character” the show’s creators had promised.

And yet there never felt like there was even a whiff of hope. No indication that perhaps our most beloved characters, some of whom have been on the journey since the very beginning, were going to escape.

In an hour of television that transitioned masterfully from one scene of utter dejection to the next, you couldn’t help but watch. It was quite possibly the most harrowing hour that’s ever graced the small screen, but it was never not compelling at its very core.

Thus, the viewer was rewarded for his or her resilience when Daryl invoked the wrath of Negan, striking him across the face following the murder of Abraham.

It transpires lightning can strike twice

It was poor Glenn who paid the price. Glenn, who first saved Rick back in the very first episode; Glenn, the guy who’s saved the group from utter annihilation countless times; Glenn, who’s relationship with Maggie was one of the few genuinely touching things to come out of the post-apocalyptic shit storm that is The Walking Dead. 

Many thought he would escape Negan’s punishment (even though his character does meet his end at Negan’s hand in the comics) thanks to his “death” in the alleyway, that later turned out to only be a cruel red herring.

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Instead, his presumed earlier demise appeared to be more a case of foreshadowing.

In that moment, when Glenn was beaten to death with such vicious indignity, you really felt like there was nothing left The Walking Dead could do to rob you off hope. Not only was Glenn dead, he left behind Maggie — who’s already seen her father beheaded and her sister shot. Glenn was all she had left.

But there was one final trick in store for us.

We finally saw Rick break — and it was gut-wrenching to witness

Rick, who’s served as a paragon of authority, the pinnacle of survival instinct, the man who’s fought off countless adversaries and dragged his friends and family through every mess they’ve found themselves in, was reduced to a snivelling, hollow shell of a man at the hands of Negan.

Accustomed as we are to so often seeing Rick in control of a situation, it was anathema to see him broken by Negan. It felt worse than the deaths of Abraham and Glenn. They paid with their lives, but Rick, the perennial and proverbial beacon of hope, was extinguished — and that light was doused when Negan gave him one final choice: cut off your son’s arm or see everyone you know and love perish.

If you’d considered the previous forty-five minutes a masterclass in how to rob an audience of hope and instil in them a sense of complete and utter dejection, then The Waking Dead managed to outdo itself again.

With Rick broken, it feels like nothing will ever be right again.

There is finally a worthwhile adversary again

If there’s one thing the writers of the show can execute flawlessly, it’s making the viewer loathe a villain. And it’s what the show has needed once more.

However, while Negan has left a generation of fans distraught, his introduction makes perfect sense in narrative terms. The show craves that antithesis to Rick and all that he’s fighting for. The Governor provided it, Terminus threatened to restore it; and now Negan has resurrected it.

In Negan, The Walking Dead has established a villain with whom there is absolutely no empathy. The Governor was terrifying, but there was an understanding to him: he’d lost his family, seen everything he had burn, but with Negan, on the back of this episode alone, there feels like there’s no limit to his malice.

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His character supplies the much-needed antagonist of thoroughly terrifying proportions that stops the show from becoming a bunch of people wandering about in the woods killing zombies.

He didn’t just kill a few of the show’s favourite characters, he stripped the show’s driving force of its principles; he took any wisp of hope and crushed it.

Season 7 of The Walking Dead is going to make for some horrendously difficult viewing.