The first episode of The Grand Tour airs tonight, at 12:01 am GMT (7:01 pm on America's east coast). Expect our review of the series premiere later tonight, but before that happens, we decided to rewatch the final, truncated season of Top Gear with Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond at the helm.
Season 22 was one of constant ups and downs. The many unfunny and cheesy segments were matched by some of the best films since Top Gear's golden era during the late 2000s. For every ambulance film, we saw a Canadian adventure. For every Peugeot segment, there was a test of the BMW M3 and i8. Inconsistencies were a central feature. Recognizing that could temper some of the feverish expectations as we prepare to watch episode one of The Grand Tour.
Expect controversy from Top Gear, but an international incident? It's because of the disaster during the Patagonia Special that it's difficult to judge TG's last big-budget road trip. On the surface, it had a promising concept – drive three V8-powered cars across some truly stunning terrain. The team could have stopped there, but the car soccer angle and hamfisted modifications were too much, and while the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid references were amusing at first – Clarkson's impression of Paul Newman at the cabin was hilarious – they felt forced by the end of the episode, particularly the final scene.
But Patagonia got things right by letting the action develop organically, or at least as organically as is possible on TV. The navigation mishaps, reliability problems, and of course, problems with horses, were classic Top Gear. But unfortunately, protesters prevented the rest of the episode from playing out. Had it, Patagonia would have likely gone down as merely average – far better than the hopelessly pointless India special and the disappointing Burmese adventure, but not as great as Bolivia, the American Deep South, Vietnam, Botswana, or the Heart of Africa.
Episode one evolved and expanded on a concept pioneered way back during season ten – a cross-town race between a car, public transport, a bicycle, and a boat (or in this case, a hovercraft). Moving the trip to St. Petersburg added some beautiful and foreign scenery, tremendous waterways for Clarkson's usual mishaps, and tram tracks to cripple Hammond and his Tour de France bike. Frankly, this was one of our favorite features of the season and makes episode one a welcome highlight after the disaster in Patagonia.
Top Gear continued its adventures abroad in Australia, and like Patagonia, the concept was promising – drive a Nissan GT-R, Bentley Continental GT, and BMW M6 GranCoupe across some of Australia's most rugged, desolate terrain. But obnoxious pranks – Australian wildlife is dangerous, but would anyone really believe Clarkson carries claymore mines around to deal with them? – and the cattle herding concept were disappointing. A simple A-to-B run with plenty of points challenges might have been a better call.
Top Gear was on an uptick following Patagonia. And then episode three and the horrible ambulance segment arrived. Make no mistake, this isn't only the single worst episode of season 22, it's possibly one of the worst episodes Clarkson, Hammond, and May filmed during their tenure on the world's biggest car show. Top Gear tried to do an hour of sketch comedy that just happened to involve some cars, and it's terrible – particularly the awful Thunderbirds Are Go! element. TG was at its best when the ambitious-but-rubbish efforts developed without behind-the-scenes planning. That's a tricky pursuit, but we'd rather have an unfunny but informative show than a cheesy one.
Episode three was bad because it was about jokes instead of cars. But episode four was great because it was about nothing but cars. Clarkson's film with the BMW M3 and i8 was stellar and Richard Hammond's Land Rover stunt felt like something out of Top Gear's golden days. Even this episode's guests stand out, with Margot Robbie and Will Smith taking a spin in the reasonably priced Vauxhall Astra. If you're going to watch one episode from season 22, episode four is it.
Second only to the ambulance film for worst segment of Top Gear's 22nd season is episode five's Peugeot retrospective. Top Gear did this kind of film before with both Lancia and Saab, producing films that salute the company's history and best products while also offering pointed critiques of their modern-day situation. But the Peugeot segment is insulting to both French people and Peugeot drivers. We get it, Top Gear, Brits don't like the French. But repeated, unfunny sequences featuring nothing but stereotypes are boring and lazy. And the mocking of Peugeot drivers – which we're guessing are the British equivalent of Toyota Camry owners – is fine in small doses, but it dominates this film and totally overshadows the stuff about actual cars.
Episode six is a return to form, finally delivering something we've been hoping Top Gear would do for years – American pickup trucks. While it's true that TG has done trucks in the past, they were more footnotes than actual, dedicated features. But the main segment of E6 is all about trucks. This segment perfectly balances TG's pursuit of humor with its ability to deliver interesting commentary about vehicles. The fact that Hammond, who claims he's been arguing to do pickups for years only to get left out when it actually happens, gets angrier than we've ever seen him is just icing on the cake.
TG continued focusing on the cars for a strong seventh episode, comparing the Jaguar F-Type Coupe with the obscenely expensive Eagle Low-Drag GT, sending Hammond to test the excellent Mazda MX-5 Miata, and then putting James May at the wheel of a Global RallyCross Volkswagen Polo. That final segment, in particular, is yet another reminder of how good TG is when it balances being funny while focusing on cars. Hammond and Clarkson's "helpful" attempts at spotting May while he runs GRC races is a highlight.
And finally, episode eight, which features a genuine elephant in the room. Cheap car challenges were a long staple of Top Gear, and it's fitting that they're the final two segments for the series as we knew it. There's a little too much nonsense in the first film, featuring a pointless time lapse before getting on with the business of testing a vintage Peugeot 304 Cabriolet, an MGB GT, and a Fiat 124 Spider, but the culmination is worth it. The second film also borders on the silly side, particularly after the team sets about "modifying" their crossovers, but the combination of challenges is just what we expect from a cheap car challenge.
Should season 22's inconsistencies have us worried for The Grand Tour? Probably not. But if we start noticing ups and downs in the quality of the new show – which is possible, as Clarkson has said he doesn't think there's a car in the second episode – it's worth looking back on season 22 of Top Gear for a reminder that these three can get a show wrong. But as the final few episodes of TG proved, they'll eventually hit a home run.