I gave the new Top Gear a shot, I really did. I didn’t want to like it, I wanted to love it… but it’s a mess. So I’m not here to lay blame or pour salt into any wounds. Everyone is clearly doing their best and wants to please us long-time fans, so I’m sure everyone is wondering what went wrong and wants to fix it. Well, I’m about to give you some free advice, so buckle up.
Too Much of The Original
This may a be a bit of a head-scratcher. It would seem obvious to keep as much of the original formula as possible to appeal to the core fans. The energy. The challenges. The shouty proclamations. The problem is that all of these elements, including the directorial style were a reflection of and/or played off of the personalities of the hosts. It was the perfect combination of style and personality. The proverbial lightning in a bottle.
What you’re doing is the equivalent of putting Beyoncé’s hot pants on Adele. It doesn’t matter how beautiful and talented Adele is, it just isn’t going to work. It feels forced and unnatural. The style and feel of the show needs to reflect the character of the new hosts, and as it stands, it simply doesn’t. Which leads to the next point…
Lots of Enthusiasm, but Short on Personality & Chemistry
The three previous hosts had very distinct personalities and opinions; personalities that they turned into characters. One can see the progression from their first series to their last. Each host fell into a niche that perfectly offset the others much like the Marx Brothers. The absurdity that resulted in the films (to the fans’ delight) came from thisꟷwhich comes back to my point about the directing. You don’t direct a slapstick film the same way you’d direct a satire, and you don’t hire actors for the one that can only do the other, no matter how talented. What niches do the new hosts fill? I don’t know. No one knows.
In addition to an abundance of personality, they each knew a lot about cars, the industry, and the history. Way more than the average person, and were able to demonstrate this knowledge without becoming insufferable prigs–and when they (meaning May) did, Jezza or Hamster was there to deflate the balloon in humorous fashion. You got the impression that they drove just about everything with four wheels (and sometimes three) and had an opinion about it. No matter how silly they got, you had to respect that expertise. They weren’t spoiled rich people driving the best cars because they were entitled, but motorsport enthusiasts reveling in the joy of getting paid to do what they loved.
The other obvious point to make is that they have chemistry, which can’t be faked. Obviously there were egos, but when people are friends, you can push back on one another; the friction (often caught on camera) was both relatable and a source of much humor. Without friendship, friction turns into problems… as every fan in the world is now aware of.
At it’s heart, Top Gear is every petrol-head’s fantasy: larking about in supercars with your mates. We loved the three hosts because they were us.
Apart from the Stig, and the little Matt’s Hollywood charisma has been played up, no one on the new show has a character. We haven’t been given a chance to get to know them. Instead, they’re performing bits that seem written for the previous hosts. In other words, everyone is wearing Jeremy’s hot pants. Try to get that image out of your head.
If you don’t know what I mean about character, describe the hosts without talking about what they look like, or their (other) jobs. Here, I’ll give you an example:
James May: Pedantic. A slow driver with a terrible sense of direction. Tech geek with OCD tendencies who is terrible with the ladies. Has a disdain for cars that sacrifice comfort in order to get that extra tenth of a second on the Nuremberg ring. Has questionable taste in clothing. Prefers small, inexpensive cars that can be driven at 9/10ths without breaking the speed limit. I could easily go on, but I think my point is made.
I have tremendous respect for Chris Harris, and Sabine Schmitz, have been a fan of LeBlanc since way back, but apart from that (and what I said earlier about LeBlanc), can’t tell you a thing about any of them. I don’t even know what kind of cars they like or why1. If you can come up with something, put it in the comments below. Oh, and “Shouty” doesn’t count.
But the biggest problem by far is that none of the hosts really seem to know or like each other, and all their interactions
are feel like scripted shtick, rather than conversations. Fake is worse than dull.
Fix the Chemistry and Create Characters
Put the show on hiatus. I know this would require eating a large slice of humble pie, but it needs to be done.
Get rid of any host who isn’t a team player and is unable to make a creative contribution to the show. If you need to bring in new people, do it. I hear Ben Collins is available. But everyone needs to be able to work together. Make sure there is a natural chemistry. As Adam and Jamie showed on Mythbusters, you don’t have to like each other to have chemistry, but they have to have respect for one another. Oh, and there are too many hosts. 3-4 max. This has further reduced the ability of the audience to get to know any of them.
Then send them off to a boot camp of some kind for four weeks because they need the trust and rapport it took the previous three years to develop right now. They need to figure out what their defining personality traits are and spin them into characters. Make sure that the character traits are ones that people can connect with. Exaggerated but authentic. Don’t label them like US Top Gear did, but reveal the characters over time, like on a scripted drama–or real life.
Go Back to Basics
Get rid of challenges for the time being. Let the audience get to know the personality of the new hosts under real-world circumstances so they are relatable. Go back to driving and reviewing some normal cars. Let each episode have a natural ebb and flow between more pedestrian (figuratively speaking) segments and high-octane ones. A song with nothing but high notes isn’t particularly interesting, and neither is a show where everything is absurd.
Bring Back the News Segment or Something Like It
This is part of the ebb and flow I mentioned above. Far from boring, this allowed the audience to, in a figurative sense, kick back and chew the fat with the hosts. Their personalities really came out, their likes, dislikes, what they’d been up to between shows (or series), and showed them as equals. Friends (how ironic is that?) We were all invited to be part of their little group.
Hire New Directors
You need directors who can shoot the films in a way that compliments the new hosts. Supercar films should remain the same because those are, after all, pure pornography.
Ditch the Stars on the Couch
This is proof that more isn’t always better. The original interview segment relied on Jeremy’s personality, and he owned it. He prepared for the interviews and seemed to go into them with his own agenda which made them interesting and unpredictable.
Changing the track wasn’t bad, but adding more stars makes it less focused and feels like a game show. Which is horrific. Either bite the bullet and go back to the original format, or do away with it altogether. Or how about interviewing the star in the back of GT car while the Stig does hot laps around the track? That would be extremely entertaining.
Ditch the Audience Participation
I know everyone loves the Stig. I know everyone wants to yell his name. But what makes him special is his air of mystery–which you don’t get when the audience is encouraged to scream his name like a bunch of sugar-addled schoolchildren. It feels forced. No one wants to see that. No one. The host that drove the car introduces the Stig. Period.
No in conclusion this week. Just my best wishes to everyone at Top Gear. And to the executives: calm down. Your job is not to be creative, your job is to look at numbers. I get that. But the fact is the rating are going to be down compared to the previous version of the show. It isn’t necessarily because anyone is doing anything wrong, but people need time to adjust and to build a new fanbase. In this particular case, there’s a lot that’s being done wrong, and unfortunately, you’re going to have to tear the house down and rebuild from scratch. It’s going to be a difficult and painful process, but unless you do it, I doubt the show will survive, not with Jay Leno’s Garage on the air and The Grand Tour coming.
Addendum: The Interview & Rally Course
Apologies, but this article was dashed off on a spur of the moment whim and I realized I have to revise my previous statement. I shouldn’t have to explain this, but I feel I must.
First, the point of a good interview is that you learn something new about the star during the course of a normal conversation (though in the majority of talk shows, the topics are all laid out in advance), which engages the audience. Doing so in a game-show setting makes it weird and disconnected from real life.
Second, putting the star into a budget car further brings them to the level of the audience. It levels the playing field, so to speak. Putting the stars into tricked-out rally cars kills that dead. No normal person will ever buy a rally car.
Third, there isn’t a fan who hasn’t dreamed of lapping the legendary Top Gear Test Track. Why else would it have been featured in the two most popular racing games (Gran Tourismo and Forza Motorsport) of all time? The Hot Lap Board is considered by car enthusiasts the world over to be the supercar benchmark (Nürburgring be damned). Car manufacturers realize this. Why else would Koenigsegg sent their CCX back with a wing after the Stig crashed it? How else can you explain why MacLaren, Ferrari, and Porsche have been so reluctant to do a head-to-head shootout there? Chris Harris was able to get his hands on all three and drive them at Portimao. Why? No disrespect to Harris–it was a great film, and he deserves credit for scooping, well, everyone–but it wasn’t Top Gear. And it wasn’t The Track. The Track makes or breaks reputations, and everyone knows it.
No one cares about the fake rally course, and no one ever will.
Addendum 2: One Vision
This is a gimme. It is so obvious, it didn’t even occur to me to say it, but here it is. You absolutely, positively need to hire someone with a single creative vision. Call it hot pants, style, whatever, what you’ve been doing, as pointed out by every single critic and as I’ve touched on above, is copy what is clearly someone else’s vision for the show. You need someone who is both creative and funny, but has a real knowledge of cars as all the previous hosts had… not just people who collect expensive autos. For example, look at Jay Leno’s Garage or Jay Leno’s Garage. It’s a fantastic car show, and it’s nothing like Top Gear or any other car show on television, and it’s because it has a clear and distinct creative vision by a host whose knowledge, enthusiasm and expertise are staggering. If you can’t find a host with that creative drive and vision, you might as well pack up now.
Addendum 3: Ditch the Theme Song
Sacrilege, I know, but you don’t play your ex-wife’s favorite song at your wedding to your new wife, now do you? I would suggest going with Don’t Stop Me Now, as the song has relevance to the history of the show without being linked to any specific host. At the very least, use a different version of the theme.
Addendum 4: Good Bye Chris
Things seem to be moving rather quickly. I hope the allegations are untrue, and if so, I wish Evans nothing but the best, but I will leave that up to the legal system.
1 Well, that’s not entirely true. I subscribe to Chris Harris’ Youtube channel, so I’ve seen him drive and rave about a lot of cars. But that’s Youtube.