ON Monday, July 13th, 2015, BBC America aired the last episode of Top Gear from its first era of the new format, originated in 2002. Essentially a special featuring two films full of typical Top Gear challenges and antics, it conveyed all the humor and occasional brilliance that made Top Gear an institution.
For those who don’t know, Jeremy Clarkson was let go, for all intents and purposes, from the BBC following an incident where he physically and verbally assaulted a Top Gear producer, reportedly over not being to get a hot breakfast (and no, I am not making that up); after years of making questionable comments and being accused of racism, this incident, which coincidentally also occurred against a union member, finally ended his long tenure with the BBC, and resulted in Top Gear being suspended. Clarkson’s fellow presenters, James May and Richard Hammond, both declared that they were leaving as well, along with long serving executive producer Andy Wilman. However, the BBC managed to get Hammond and May to appear and host the remaining footage, which they did not want to waste. (The BBC reportedly also offered them lucrative contracts to return for series 23 next year.)
Now, I’ve been saying for a long time, albeit not online, that Top Gear needed a face lift, if not a reset; the show’s humor from series 19 through and including 22 last fall, was increasingly childish, and sometimes even cruel to one another, although it probably was made to look a lot worse than it actually was. (I have no doubt the three of them are good friends in reality.) I honestly thought that Clarkson was the problem; the other two tend to play off him, and when it’s just the two of them, they have a different vibe. Clarkson also brought about more controversy than the other two combined, and his maligned reputation came to bite the show last year when filming in South America during the Patagonia Special, even though all evidence shows there actually was no wrongdoing by any party involved.
The episode that aired in mid-July 2015 was different in many ways; for only the second time in the modern show’s history, Richard Hammond delivered the opening address; Clarkson was not in the studio; there was no studio audience; the in-studio humor was toned down; and finally, the ending after both films had aired was somber, with both Hammond and May looking into the camera and saying goodbye to the audience, instead of the usual “see you next year.” It was a moment which actually kind of hurt, given how big a fan of the show I am.
Perhaps my biggest disappointment from it was that there was no attempt to be sentimental, no “thank you for being on this journey with us,” or something that showed a respect and love for the audience that had stuck with them for 13 years. Maybe they were thinking about coming back, and wanted to leave the door open; maybe the BBC didn’t want them to get sentimental. I don’t know, but if they don’t come back, which seems probable now, I feel it is a slap in the face that they didn’t acknowledge, or be allowed to, thank the fans who were there for so long.
One thing I noticed during the first of the two films is that all the rust and issues I had with Top Gear weren’t there; the three of them seemed to be having fun, laughing at each other and themselves, and surprisingly, with toned down commentary and a down-to-earth attitude that has been lacking. Even the funny ending worked, because it felt earned. I do hope that whoever takes over the show looks at that, and runs the show more like that than the past few seasons have been run.
To close out on a more positive note, I want to list off some of my favorite challenges and episodes from Top Gear (2002-2015);
1. The Bolivia Special: no backup car, no Stig, no problem. For once, the suffering is something we all can understand (jungle climates, bugs, altitude sickness), they actually work together as a team, occasionally, and the mix of humor and drama (real, not manufactured) makes it some of the best reality TV I’ve ever seen.
2. Amphibious cars: I can’t pick one, so I’m picking both. The grand failure (exempting Clarkson in the second attempt) here is amazing to behold, especially when you think about all the work they put into it.
3. The Race to the North: I love the three way duel between motorcycle, car, and train, replicating a 1949-style race from London to Edinburgh. There is good humor, great commentary on how things have changed in the intervening six decades, and a fascinating look at vehicles from a bygone era.
4. The Hilux: the numerous attempts to destroy and / or disable a Toyota Hilux (eventually completed inadvertently by Clarkson during Amphibious Cars I) is awesome; they sent it down a building, burnt it, hit it with a wrecking ball, and eventually capitulated and celebrated their failure by making it a monument in the studio, a triumph of the car against all odds.
Thanks for reading. See you soon.