They’re back. And they’re as middle-aged, un-photogenic and grumpy as ever. How Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May became worldwide TV heroes on the back of BBC’s Top Gear may well mystify academics in 100 years time, but as they race onto their new home on Amazon Prime Video today, history will show one thing: The Grand Tour leaves Top Gear trailing miles behind.
The show begins as it means to go on: big. Amazon has spent millions on the series, and every penny is up on screen in the bravura intro sequence, which sees Clarkson leave an anonymous corporate building in London, only to jump on a plane to the USA and emerge in a shiny, blue Mustang. “I can see clearly now the rain has gone” plays in the background, as he glides down the highway, suddenly joined by the red and white cars of Hammond and May. It’s like watching the finale to the latest Fast & Furious sequel, before things ride into Mad Max: Fury Road territory, with everything from bikes and trucks to jets flying over the top all gathering in the desert for this grand inaugural episode. It’s jaw-dropping stuff, full of gorgeous blues and sparkling sunlight.
Before any worries about the show losing touch with its roots can set in, though, the trio bring everything back down to earth with a bump. There are jokes about their failed careers and May being born in 1836, while Clarkson describes the roaming tent premise behind the series, which will travel the world for 12 episodes, as them “being like Gypsies”. “Only the cars we drive are going to be insured,” he adds. As the other two look awkward, the message is clear: they may have found a new home, but their banter isn’t going anywhere.
Inside the tent, things feel immediately familiar, as the gang chat with the audience and mock each other, but there’s a freshness to the format, partly driven by the legal need for Amazon to avoid duplicating the BBC show and partly fuelled by the fact that we haven’t spent time with these guys for over a year. They have a driver, yes, but he’s identified as NASCAR racer Mike Skinner (nickname: “The American”). They have a segment dedicated to chat, but don’t really do topical news. They even tease celebrity guests, before hilariously killing the idea off.
The Grand Tour knows that a large chunk of its audience are here for one reason only: the cars. And this debut lap doesn’t disappoint: their first film lines up the Porsche 918, McLaren P1 and Ferrari LaFerrari (as May wonderfully calls it, “Ferrari The Ferrari”) for a three-way face-off in Portugal. As Clarkson puts it, their first episode “couldn’t be car-ier if it tried”. The result is exhiliratingly edited, dripping with the kind of savvy soundtrack choices, stylish cinematography and nerdy vehicular observations that made Top Gear at its peak so fun to watch, regardless of how petrol-headed you are.
It’s that chemistry, both between the music and the visuals and between the men, that sets The Grand Tour off to a flying start, as expectations and surprises spark off the immature insults and precision drifting. Even the show’s new race track isn’t overshadowed by the legacy of its predecessor, described wittily as “the exact same shape as a ebola virus”, complete with an Old Lady’s House next door and Your Name Here corner (for sponsorship opportunities). As the cars scream around the course, while a montage previews some of the ridiculous antics in store, this opening 70-minute collision of tanks, explosions and “that bloke with woman’s hair” is a clear statement of intent, not just from The Grand Tour, but from Amazon itself. The site is increasingly going shoulder-to-shoulder with rival Netflix as an equally ambitious titan of the streaming world. This is the new TV, they roar at the BBC and its poorly received Top Gear reboot from earlier this year, and it’s going to be a bright sunny day. Now watch us fill it with exhaust smoke.
Haters of the show, needless to say, won’t find much to win them over, but fans will be delighted with what’s on offer: cars, a few ageing blokes and a ton of money to let them do what they want. And you do get the sense that this loud, fast, flammable nonsense really is want they want to be doing. Top Gear on steroids? Fast & Furious in jeans? However you put it, some things change. Some things never do. Others just drive cars and make it look really, really, ridiculously good. And when it comes down to it, what more could you want from a motoring show?
The Grand Tour is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or as part of £79 annual Amazon Prime membership. New episodes arrive at 00.01GMT every Friday for 12 weeks, starting 18th November 2016. For more on how to watch The Ground Tour, click here.