If you were to ask me what I thought the worst segment of Top Gear was, before the Chris Evans version emerged anyway, it would be when Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond tried to do a car chase for The Sweeney. It was everything the worst critics of the show said it was, overly scripted and staged, cringey and not really about cars except in the most tangential sense. There was a couple of segments like this but this was clearly the worst and as if that wasn’t bad enough, The Sweeney was a terrible movie. Many worried that The Grand Tour would carry this over. And those worries have now come true in Operation Desert Stumble.
It would be unfair to see the Desert Stumble as a terrible segment. There are some funny moments, mostly in the second part when a car does get involved, but this is just proof that Clarkson, Hammond and May are presenters and journalists, and actors last.
The pretense is simple. The Jordan government have made a fake town where special forces from around the world can go and test themselves in a hostage situation. So of course, it is time for the trio to do it themselves. On paper, like The Sweeney segment, it could be brilliant. Some of Top Gear‘s funniest moments is when they forced the trio to work as a team. And there’s been success in the past by involving the military, most notably when Clarkson tried to outrace a tank in the Range Rover Sport. This should have worked.
However it quickly becomes clear that what it really is is a chance for them to action heroes, and for us to laugh at how improbable that is. This doesn’t work for many reasons, usually down to the fact Clarkson, Hammond and May are no good as actors and they don’t know how to deliver a line, even if it is a good one. When the laughs do come, it’s usually down to the editing rather than them, which once again proves how good the production staff are on this show.
There’s also some carryover flaws from the first show. The American’s lines still don’t get a laugh as the Southern Hick thinks everything foreign is communist joke outlasted its welcome in 1996, never mind 2016. And while it is shorter, it seems as if the show is committed to the celebrities getting killed off while walking to the tent, and it’s still not that funny.
That’s not to say this show is a complete wash. The car test this week is of an Aston Martin Vulcan, a truly stunning car that is well worth admiring and going over. It also set an electric time at the Eboladrome, with this proving that unlike the Power Lap board on Top Gear, non-Road Cars will be allowed on the leaderboard.
This episode also dove quite deeply into South African car culture, which is cool considering the show was being filmed in Johannesburg and something I hope the show continues with in future episodes.. Clarkson and Hammond interviewed someone over a car he made to resemble an old Mercedes which won Le Mans, something which is apparently quite common in South Africa. James May also went to something called spinning, an activity which sees youths spinning Rear Wheel Drive cars in order to cause as much smoke as possible before the tires pop. It’s always hilarious to see May put in these sort of situations and it expands on what petrolheads in South Africa love, which I think is going to be a continuing thing on The Grand Tour. It means the tent has a point really other than paying the trio to go to nice places for work.
So yeah, this episode isn’t completely terrible. But that’s only because this is like a concert where the main act turn out to be late and drunk, while the support act are rocking like their lives depend on it. Let’s hope we don’t see any more overly scripted mucking about this season.