Fast forward to a year ago, when the BBC produced a new series of Top Gear, with famed breakfast show person and shouting enthusiast Chris Evans hosting. Laden with personnel and curiously lacking any direction, the first new season collapsed onto itself with Evans eventually quitting the entire shindig.
After that, viewers received a new, Amazon-produced Clarkson-Hammond-May series called The Grand Tour, which was often brilliant and just as often hampered by writing as hackneyed as the last Clarkson years of Top Gear.
Now the slate is clean. Evans is gone. The first Grand Tour season has aired. The BBC has had a good long time to re-evaluate its strategy. And the first episode of this season's Top Gear has aired in the UK - and will air March 12 on BBC America.
What an improvement! It seems like the producers have taken an ax to everything not strictly necessary for making a great car show, and they've left what is absolutely crucial. There are the three car guys, Matt LeBlanc, Chris Harris and Rory Reid. There is a new studio. There is a new track car. There is a celebrity, but it's not painful to watch. There are easy jokes, there are car jokes, there are Ronin jokes. Ronin jokes! It's as if Harris, by dissecting continuity errors in the 1998 film's BMW chase, is reaching out to us fans, saying he's one of us, and he did notice the wrong wheels when the black BMW falls from the bridge. (Other mistakes are wrong-colored tach needles, for instance.)
The first car film is a quality Ferrari FXX K piece, with Harris enjoying one of the 40 built track-day specials on the bankings of Daytona. It's remarkable it was Harris who was allowed to drive the exclusive Ferrari, as the first "outsider" (in his words) to drive one; years ago Harris was one of the most vocal critics of Ferrari's practices, resulting in him getting banned from driving press Ferraris. But then again, this is a customer car.
After the Ferrari film, the celebrity guest James McAvoy is introduced, and so is the new Top Gear track car, a GT86. Gone are the FWD grocery getters; now they have a "reasonably fast car" that's RWD to boot. On a wet day, slides are guaranteed. And it's Harris instructing McAvoy behind the wheel, his barky demeanor reminding us of Lt. Harris in the Police Academy series.
And the challenge? The three guys take three very used cars with interstellar mileage to Baikonur, Kazakhstan. In a display of how these challenges should be done, the segment has an actual end without the guys just driving aimlessly around in the desert. Well, there is a bit of that, and, believe it or not, stuff gets broken. But somehow it still works the way it used to in classic Top Gear episodes a decade ago.
At this point, with one new episode out of the box, it's not safe to say whether the initial one was a promise of a great season. But the first episode can even bear repeated watching – something that cannot be said of all recent Top Gear or Grand Tour episodes.