Top Gear's first episode was a promising mess
Aside from Evans, most of the problems with episode one seem fixable.
The biggest unknown for the new show is Evans himself. Would this radio host and Ferrari fan sink or swim under TG's bright lights? For the first portion of the episode, he flip-flopped between a Jeremy Clarkson impersonator and an over-excited seven-year-old boy. His title intros are cringe-worthy – the worst kind of Clarkson impersonation – and on camera Evans reminds us of a shouty game show host or circus conductor. Evans is better outside of the studio where he reacts more naturally to his surroundings, but there's a tangible insincerity to his behavior. His jabs at the former Top Gear and its hosts seemed juvenile and unprofessional as well. Do you really need to run about shouting you got custody of the Stig, when he's just a piece of intellectual property owned by the BBC?
Matt LeBlanc's debut is the opposite of Evans in every way. He looks natural and composed when he's on camera, like he's already established his own presenting style. LeBlanc is relaxed and smooth behind the wheel, and after watching his Nomad video it's easy to imagine him working alongside Clarkson, Hammond, or May. That is, he's a natural fit for the spirit of Top Gear. We can't wait to see how he does as the show goes on.
We'd love to tell you about the other hosts, but aside from a snippet in the first video with Sabine Schmitz and Extra Gear with Rory Reid and Chris Harris, they aren't on camera much. But with what we saw of each of them, TG's producers should bring them into the studio, if only to lighten Evans on-camera load and give him someone to play off of.
Top Gear's bigger issue is its structure. The main episode has Evans and Schmitz driving the Dodge Viper ACR and Chevrolet Corvette Z06, followed by a two-parter with Evans and LeBlanc driving Reliant Rialtos. Then the show transitions into better entertainment: LeBlanc in the Ariel Nomad, and Stars in a Reasonably Priced Car. Extra Gear has a chat with Evans and Sabine, a walkthrough of the track's new off-road section, Harris' thoughts on the Nomad, The News, an interview with a comedian named Chris Ramsey, and a visit with Sabine in Germany. Someone needs to take out the editing scissors.
The Viper/Z06 video feels contrived and clichéd. Top Gear creates clichés – "It goes like a stabbed rat." – but a segment featuring American super cars and fighter jets/pilots is just using one. At least it's shot well, and the pop culture element is something cheesy we'd expect from the former hosts. LeBlanc's Nomad review is about as typical as a TG review could be – here's the car, here's an absurd challenge that shows off the car further. Again, the shooting here is great – precisely what we expect from TG – but LeBlanc's first solo piece proved he can handle cars and cameras at the same time. The bigger problems came with the Reliant video and the Stars in a Reasonably Priced Car, which Evans and Co. rebranded to the Stars in a Rallycross Car. Without spoiling anything, the producers should cut the entire first half of the Reliant video. It's as terrible as the second half is good, and the second half is good enough to feature in the Clarkson/Hammond/May era.
A better structured program would replace the overlong first half of the Reliant segment with Reid's introduction of the new track – which would air right before stars Gordon Ramsey and Jesse Eisenberg came on stage for a shortened interview. This is a new Top Gear, but aside from Evans' crack about catering at the beginning of the episode, there's no explanation of what's new or why. Reid's piece on the off-road section could have served that purpose. LeBlanc's Nomad piece is good, but the entire episode is light on driving impressions. And before you say old Top Gear was short on driving impressions, go back and give it watch – you'll need a machete to hack through all the hyperbole and metaphor for the actual on-track reviews, but there was plenty on the cars.
There are other smaller issues, too. For one, in the Clarkson/Hammond/May era, the producers had a cohesive musical theme for each feature. Whoever is in charge of music for Evans' TG just kind of went through their iTunes and picked out some classic rock. There's no rhyme or reason to what we're hearing. Also, why is there so much echo in the studio segments? At least Top Gear's cinematic style survived Evans' takeover. All the slow motion, stylish, off-color shots are present. It doesn't sound like Top Gear, but at least it looks like it.
Our issues with the first episode are plentiful. Aside from Evans' generally obnoxious behavior, they're all fixable. It's only the first episode, but it seems clear Evans that can't carry the show on his own. He can't even do the heavy lifting, actually. Top Gear needs a team in the studio, and that means doing a better job integrating Schmitz, Harris, and Reid. Read a copy of Richard Porter's And On That Bombshell..., and you'll know that weeks went into editing each episode – apply that philosophy here and figure out what deserves to be aired and what doesn't. Oh, and either figure out or cut the Star in a Rallycross Car segment, because this week's interview is just painful.
Problems aside, Top Gear's inherent character is still on display in this episode. That's thanks largely to the photography and LeBlanc. It took several seasons for Clarkson, Hammond, and May to find their rhythm. It'd be unfair to give Evans and his team much less than a season to do the same – whether that will be easy or hard for the viewers depends on how many more episodes are as bloated and disappointing as the first.
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