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The Grand Tour season 1 review: What could go wrong?

The first season of The Grand Tour has been and gone, marking Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond’s return to making shows about cars. But was it a triumph? Recombu Cars loaded up Amazon Video and watched all 13 episodes (not in one sitting) to find out.

“Looking good is more important than looking where you’re going,” Clarkson says, before stepping into the beautiful Alfa Romeo 4C. It was a gag about how un-Roger Moore he looked, much to the amusement of Richard Hammond and James May, but it struck a chord.

The Grand Tour was, admittedly, less inclined to throw every cliche and visual trick it could at the show in the hope something would stick, as we saw with the revamped Top Gear, but it, too, lacked a touch of substance. A Victoria sponge without the jam, if you will.

Perfection was never going to be achieved from day one, of course. It had been a while since the largely ex-Top Gear crew had worked together and 18 months is a long time for fans to go without the main dish – a man who helped save Top Gear and was then removed from it. For not getting his main dish.

Having watched every episode of The Grand Tour and digested all 13 courses, we decided it was time to think about whether it was a case of Copenhagen fine dining or a Stoke drive-thru on a rainy evening? In doing so, we came up with a list of the good and the not-so-good.

The positives

1) The car reviews

Before Clarkson and Andy Wilman reshaped Top Gear, it was a dry show that featured men talking about depreciation. To some extent it worked. Anoraks who wanted to talk about the fuel economy of the Mondeo could fill up on motoring spec sheet goodness for the week ahead.

But it was making the show more entertaining and accessible that helped it strike a chord. That and a certain big crash. Even someone who typically cared little about cars could watch it and, if the viewing figures were anything to go by, did. But as the level of escapism increased, so did the criticism it was a bit pointless. Why test a Ferrari, people would say, when no one can afford it?

Yet for all of its stupidity, pantomime-esque jokes and staged set-pieces, The Grand Tour was rather honest in its approach to car reviews and even the cars themselves were largely accessible. The Focus RS, new Mustang, BMW M2, second-hand Maseratis – cars many of us could afford or aspire to.

Clarkson banging on about the new Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio (the actual name) was a truly heartfelt piece, which looped back to his love (and ours) for the 4C. It was glorious and as good as most of his old stuff. Well, maybe not the Reliant Robin that tips over constantly.

James May did the Ford GT40 justice in his retrospective. It was well written, thorough, beautifully shot (like almost all of The Grand tour, to be fair) and hugely entertaining. The BMW M2 review by Clarkson was also excellent and a reminder that, while the need to pen car reviews is long gone for him, he is yet to lose touch.

For us and probably many viewers, the challenges are fun to watch and we enjoy the silly humour when done right, but finding out Clarkson, May and Hammond’s opinion of a new car on the block is what really draws people in and season 1 highlighted this nicely.

2) (Some of) the challenges

The same jokes came up a lot in the Namibia ‘Christmas’ special, but then it is a largely barren place where terrible roads are one of the few threats. In any case, between the predictable jokes and over-scripting were genuine moments of excitement fused with British banter and some rhino protection work.

It was, however, the environment episode and Clarkson’s attempt at a crossover that stood out. Hammond’s plant-based car falling apart, May constantly having to rebuild his car from mud, the MG B body falling off every five seconds and the alternative subtitles of what Chelsea football team thought of his Mercedes-based creation – this was classic Top Gear. It felt good to be home.

Even the episode where Clarkson and May try to blow up Hammond’s increasingly ridiculous anti-apocalypse hit the spot. Men in tanks blowing stuff up is nothing new yet it was done with a strong script. We enjoyed it very much.

3) The filming

Watching The Grand Tour through a 4K, HDR-enabled TV with a broadband connection fast enough to fit all those extra pixels down the cable really does look great (just HDR alone is worth it), although there is perhaps too much to be said for seeing Clarkson’s face in quite so much detail. No amount of brilliant filming saves a bad script, mind you, but it is a show that helps justify a TV upgrade, especially with such impressive camera work going on.

4) The words

Sometimes The Grand Tour missed the mark badly and wandered into awkward territory, but it was a mainly tight ship with spot-on analogies showing Chris Evans, Matt LeBlanc and the rest of the cast how it is done. Clarkson’s ability to make a point relatable (such as how the government subsidy on eco cars costs everyone money) was as good as it has always been, if a tad predictable in a couple of places. You could say it ran out of ideas for the final episode, but even then the drift bit’s unusual level of honesty kept you invested.

5) Conversation Street

Perhaps we just enjoy a slightly off-topic chat between the three presenters more than the next man, but we did genuinely enjoy some of the Converstation Street segments. A ridiculous speeding ticket in Norway is interesting. A new Alfa Romeo SUV is interesting (although a tad out of date for petrolheads who read the likes of Recombu Cars and alternative motoring outlets). You could say discussing the issue of airplanes being too hot was a waste of time, but no one else will.

The not so positive negatives

1) Failing to make much of each location

We loved the big tent idea, least not because it shakes the formula up and gives countries around the world a chance to partake and benefit from a potential increase in tourism. But it was a shame we saw little of what each country can offer in terms of cars and motoring. We saw a few instances of it, but would love to see more of what makes each country tick beyond crazy laws and what the police drive in Dubai.

2) The #banter

Some loved the second episode in Jordan, others hated it. Clarkson had warned viewers it was the show aimed at being funny and whether it hit the mark was debatable. But a few moments that caused a laugh were overshadowed by too obvious scripting. 

What needs refining, if anything, is the balance between scripted and organic. Drive from Wank to Fucking (excuse our language), that is fine. But what happens between, at least the in-car banter, could do with being a little more free.

3) The Eboladrome

Even Clarkson’s brilliant names for each section and corner of the track can’t quite hide the fact it is a small, rather slow course. The fact there is a course at all is a small miracle given the potential legal implications, but it seems to prevent some of the faster cars from shining at their brightest. A little more speed and a little less frantic camera work would go down a treat.

4) Celebrity Braincrash

It was funny the first couple of times and we know exactly why the Celebrity Braincrash segment even existed (blame the lawyers), but it is a bit rubbish – as Clarkson openly voices towards the end of series 1. Except the bit where May is cleaning blood off the tent. For those who always disliked the celebrity interview on Top Gear, it was a welcome addition. For everyone else, it was a predictable joke that added little.

5) The American

This could have gon either way, to be honest. On the one hand, the American highlights a dated but still present type of petrolhead. On the other, it got a tad predictable, but then the Stig never said anything and the segment is mainly driven by Clarkson’s commentary so it is hardly a deal-breaker. With that said, Clarkson needs to know fascism is the new communism.

The conclusion

A few episodes of The Grand Tour really did show the trio getting into the groove, particularly towards the end of the series, but there were more lows than expected. Undoubtedly the fear of being sued has prohibited full creative freedom, but then Clarkson did manage to work around a ‘meddling’ BBC.

It was, after all, the parent-to-child, rebellious dynamic that emphasised the three idiots messing around and made for glorious television. The legal stuff is the new thing to rebel against – Clarkson just has to channel that better.

But to say The Grand Tour was a failure would be unfair because the highs were way above that of the revamped Top Gear. It was honest escapism and predominantly entertaining.

In any case, there is no doubt Clarkson, Wilman and the rest of the team will pick spend a lot of time working out what direction season 2 needs to go in to make it less Daniel Craig and more Sean Connery.

What did you think of The Grand Tour’s first season? Did it fill the void left by Top Gear or does it need to get into gear? Let us know!

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