Over the past few years, Top Gear has had a bumpier ride than a Fiesta with dodgy suspension taking on a badly potholed A road.
That said, this series has seen a marked improvement in the Top Gear build quality. Unlike last year, the series has been controversy-free, and without the Cenotaph stunt debacle and Chris Evans just, well, being Chris Evans, the show has been allowed to sail along smoothly.
It’s something that’s reflected in the ratings, too. Whereas last year they were soaring and crashing, this series has stabilised at just over the three million mark.
But scratch the surface, and sometimes the glossy paintwork belies what’s still a bit rusty underneath. Here’s where the BBC2 show is going right, and where there’s still room for improvement…
Although I’m still not entirely convinced that Matt, Chris and Rory are all popping down the pub for a pint or two after wrapping the show, it’s undeniable that the presenters’ dynamic has improved. That tension between everyone has completely dissipated, and there’s now a tangible warmth between the trio.
LeBlanc’s presenting has improved, particularly when he’s filming on his own. The same goes for Chris and Rory – they both work well solo, but combine them into a duo (Alfa Romeo drifting, Cuba) and they’re brilliant. You feel as though their chat is bordering on genuine and it almost – almost – feels unscripted.
The three of them presenting together on screen doesn’t quite work as well. It works, don’t get us wrong, but there’s something still jarring a little. I’m going to put it down to a lack of time that they’ve had to work together as a trio, and perhaps next series it will feel a lot more natural.
The bigger issue I have is that Rory Reid is seriously underused in this series. Many times throughout the series I’ve literally shouted at the TV “…but where’s Rory?!”
After he went to Kazakhstan with LeBlanc and Harris in episode one, I started to think he’d lost his passport. It’s really quite baffling why he wasn’t a part of the adventures that LeBlanc and Harris embarked on as a duo: the US road trip in episode two, the Montenegro ‘Le Bond’ skit in episode three, the Dubai race in episode four and the Californian buggy race in episode five.
Even Sabine Schmitz and Eddie Jordan played with the buggies in California. Aside from The Stig, Reid was the only one in the team not to be there. Why? I want Rory to get more stamps in his passport next series, please!
While I’m on the topic, the same actually goes for Sabine. She’s so lively, has a really dry wit, and if I could see more of her next series and (even) less of Eddie Jordan, that’d be top.
The ever-popular timed lap is back to its best and gone is the silly off-roading gimmick from last year. There have been some brilliant moments with the guests, too: David Tennant going rogue on the racetrack and causing a massive dent in the Toyota GT86, Chris Hoy spinning wildly out of control and perhaps best of all, Tamsin Greig forcing Harris to have a long, hard look at how he shouts at people by pulling over for an impromptu psychotherapy session.
Getting the celebs involved outside of the studio has also been a winner. Watching Greig destroy melons and Ross Noble smash a Volvo into a pile of sheds is amusing for the viewers – and more amusing still for LeBlanc. The times when he’s needlessly destroying stuff are hands down the most excited he ever gets during the show. It’s infectious.
Although it had its detractors, I actually enjoyed the celebrity segments in Evans era Top Gear. Having two celebs on the sofa in a micro Graham Norton-style worked well, and chatting about their first ever cars was a fun and different take on the guest spot.
That has been all-but done away with this series. It’s not helped by the fact that Evans was a seasoned interviewer and Clarkson was a journalist. With LeBlanc generally leading the way in these bits, the celeb section can feel stilted and someone like Chris Hoy ends up looking a bit lost. It’s not LeBlanc’s fault, he’s just not an interviewer.
Meanwhile the roster of guests has been good, but it hasn’t been great. There were rumours that David Schwimmer was set to appear on the show, which would’ve given the series a much-needed A-List boost alongside the likes of Tinie Tempah and Jay Kay.
As I mentioned previously, clearly with Chris Evans gone there has been room in the budget for some truly beautiful camerawork. Along with a vastly-improved set (loving the black and red palette), the ante has well and truly been upped with the films.
The production values on Harris and LeBlanc’s Mercedes and Aston Martin DB11 film (where they turned left at Hammerhead and ended up in Montenegro) were every bit as rich as the cars themselves, while Harris and Reid’s Cuban road trip showed the country off better than any travelogue.
Even Rory Reid’s Pac Man-style race through shipping containers looked fantastic.
Attention has also been directed towards drizzly Dunsfold, with the filming round the track given a wax and polish. With the celebrity laps, many of the fixed camera angles have been replaced with some rather cinematic and sweeping tracking shots, which make the whole lap look far more premium.
And, as Harris has previously commented, the show has returned more to its roots as a motoring magazine show. OK, so there are still a few silly moments, but the car reviews themselves are knowledgeable and delivered with a genuine passion and love of vehicles.
Although they might look amazing, there are still problems with the actual content of the films. Quite often that vital fun factor is absent and the punch gets lost in the edit. For example, when Chris was trying to drift an Alfa Romeo through a wall, the whole sequence dragged on and on (and on), as did the buggy race through the Californian desert.
Ignoring the fact that Eddie Jordan was there, what should’ve been a really exhilarating film with bundles of jeopardy and disaster – getting stuck on rocks, cars bursting into flames, promise of broken bones – in the end just fell a bit flat.
And on that bombshell…
The biggest problems have been ironed out this series, and what we’ve been left with is a largely enjoyable and watchable hour of Sunday night TV. It won’t take much to give it a tweak here and a buff there and with a little help, Top Gear could well be at the top of its game come series 25.
Top Gear concludes on Sunday 23 April at 8pm on BBC2