Top Gear without Chris Evans has definitely brought about some change. And you can see it straight away.
Nope, it’s not the fact that Matt LeBlanc seems more relaxed (he does) or the fact that Chris Harris and Rory Reid have rightly been promoted to host in the studio (they have).
No, what is immediately clear is that Evans’ bulky salary has instead been spent on the show itself, making everything a little bit bigger and dynamic and look so much better.
Firstly the studio has been completely made over and aesthetically it’s an improvement in every way. The audience are stood in a less haphazard manner, cars are suspended around the ring of the hangar’s floor and the black and red palette has a more high quality feel.
Gone are the tacky chairs designed to look like a car’s interior that the celebrities would sit in, replaced by clean BBC Breakfast-style sofas (albeit in leather) to welcome stars onto the show. In episode one, that was James McAvoy.
OK, firstly, the improvements. Having McAvoy sat with all three hosts felt more inclusive and relaxed and was a nice touch – as was the decision to feature Chris Harris as McAvoy’s instructor going around the track with him.
It gave for an entertaining and interesting couple of minutes – Harris getting mock angry, swearing at his star guest and backseat driving like an irascible pensioner.
What we were promised, however, didn’t seem to come to fruition. Before we had seen the episode, the producers had told us that the way in which celebrities would feature on the programme was due for a massive overhaul. No longer would they just pop by for 10 minutes, but instead they would thread throughout the whole episode. But there was certainly no evidence of this in episode one.
McAvoy wasn’t used in other areas of the show, and actually felt under-utilised in his own segment. Whereas Evans would pit two celebrities against each other when discussing the first cars they owned or their favourite ever vehicle, there was nothing of the sort here.
Instead what we were watching felt more like eavesdropping on a conversation between some blokes down the pub who were arguing over continuity errors in films. It was entertaining, but McAvoy wasn’t adding much with his presence.
There was still a whiff of awkwardness in the air at times, too – moments when LeBlanc veered into Joey territory, the chat felt stilted or “top bants” failed to raise even a titter from the fans in the hangar.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s so much better. It really, really is. The former Top Gear track is back (what a relief) and the gimmicky rally element has been done away with, not to mention that the omission of Evans’ shouting and general demeanour has vastly improved the whole aura surrounding the programme.
With Evans, the studio pieces always felt quite fraught. His jittery and heightened delivery combined with the fact that viewers could sense there was little or no warmth between him and LeBlanc left people cold.
Now you can sense that tension has dissipated. You can definitely believe that LeBlanc, Harris and Reid get on far, far better as a trio than Evans and LeBlanc ever did – and yet there are still problems. What they haven’t yet perfected or polished is a slick dynamic between the three of them and a natural chemistry doesn’t shine through. It’s still not quite there.
Perhaps this will come with even more time, or perhaps it won’t. But what the producers are doing by putting three blokes in an aircraft hanger together to present Top Gear is welcoming direct comparisons to Clarkson’s era on the show.
And one thing that this new incarnation of Top Gear does not hold up well against is comparisons to Clarkson era Top Gear.
When the “fracas” kicked off and the BBC announced he had been dropped by the corporation, Hammond and May unanimously proved their loyalty by walking away from the show – and their hefty pay packets. That sort of camaraderie is not something that can simply be constructed.
Rebooted Top Gear is evidently a far more serious programme than The Grand Tour, featuring proper films on proper cars like Harris’s segment on the ultra-rare Ferarri FXX K. However, when you’re also throwing in Matt LeBlanc slicing a shed and watermelon with a pressure washer before writing his own name in the side of a car, you have to think they’re in danger of veering into GT territory.
Even more so than last series, it was Harris who really shone the most in this first episode. He was the most entertaining, had the best quips and arguably has the best knowledge of cars between the three main presenters.
Which overall makes it all the stranger that in the closing credits Matt LeBlanc gets a clear top “presented by” billing, while poor Harris and Reid are demoted to a “with”. It’s a minor point, but one which rankles.
A few months ago, LeBlanc said that he was expecting a lot of the criticism for the new show – if any – to land in his lap. And based on this first episode, it wouldn’t be surprising if there was a fair amount still coming his way.
“People are going to throw rocks at whatever they want to throw rocks at,” he told RadioTimes.com. “All I can do is hope they don’t hit me in the head.”
The show’s second reboot leaves it much improved, but LeBlanc might still be needing that crash helmet.