Opinion: why we need to give new Top Gear a chance (again)
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Another new season of Top Gear, and once again audiences have a new set of hosts to try and remember the names of.
For the third time since the sudden departure of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, the talking Top Gear heads have changed. Chris Harris has thankfully returned, this time buddied up with former cricketer Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff and comedian Paddy McGuinness. Season 27 of the show, underlined by these new faces, screens in New Zealand for the first time on TVNZ Duke on Sunday evening.
With that many changes over such a short period of time, even the most defiant of Top Gear defenders could be forgiven for being a little bit weary of yet more change. Especially after it appeared that Harris and former hosts Matt LeBlanc and Rory Reid (who now becomes a fringe character on the show) had started to properly gel with one another.
But, there's a few good counterpoints to all that doom and gloom.
The most obvious of these is that the show's actually received some positive reviews. It's already screened in the UK, with The Guardian — who haven't always been on the Top Gear love train — among those to give it a seal of approval ("Against all the odds, it works").
Perhaps more telling are the reviews on social media from the average punter. Dive into any post relating specifically to the show's episodes and you're currently greeted by wave after wave of reasonably satisfied comments. There are naturally still plenty of it-was-better-in-the-good-old-days rebuttals, but they appear to be outnumbered.
That could possibly be attributed to the BBC's social media team cracking down on negative nancy comments, but who knows.
The simple fact that Chris Harris remains in the line-up is in itself a big reason to hang around. Granted he doesn't have the star power of any of the former trio, nor his former Friends-sourced co-star, but Harris is clearly there for the enthusiast.
He's at his best in the long-form stuff. His Chris Harris on Cars YouTube persona is alive and well in Top Gear's line of Chris Harris Drives online featurettes. Each car gets his full attention, with every facet dwelled upon or debunked with equal conviction. His round-up of the Lexus GS-F's interior is still one of my favourite bits of car nerd journalism on the internet.
And, of course, he's a stellar driver. No stunt doubles required.
The problem has long been that Harris' long-form leaning has often felt rushed when crammed into the much shorter segments in the television show. But, that's improved over time.
The last nugget of positive I'll note is the build-up process to get to this current season. From the choice of hosts to all the meaningless public relations bollocks that's followed.
Going back in time to the departure of 'the trio' and the global search for replacements. The BBC chose an incredibly broad line-up of replacements, as if they hoped to appease a certain segment of the desired, hypothetical audience.
You had Harris for the car nerds, Reid for the millennials, Eddie Jordan for the older 'oh, I remember him!' crowd, Sabine Schmidt for a bit of familiarity, and the combination of Chris Evans and LeBlanc for a bit of mainstream penetration (remembering that the former was, and still is a household name in the UK as a radio host, and the latter is Joey Tribbiani).
That's a nice theory on paper, but it completely ignores why Top Gear had that huge growth from its 2002 relaunch until that 2016 train-wreck; chemistry. Clarkson and producer Andy Wilman were perfectionists with the show, and knew that more than the cars and the blown up caravans, people tuned in in their millions because of the obvious love/hate/love chemistry between the three lead stars.
It appears that, finally, the BBC have stumbled upon this key piece of information.
While there's been plenty of promotion of the upcoming Top Gear episodes themselves (I've seen that cringy video of Harris' Mini Cooper crashing into Flintoff's Porsche Boxter thousands of times by now), there's also been countless promotional videos of the various stars trying to show that they do, in fact, have something that resembles chemistry.
Whether it's testing snacks on the internet armpit known as Ladbible, to the new trio discussing obscure and seemingly completely logic-free slang from Lancashire — an endless effort has been made to personify their friendship. And, it's actually quite believable.
It looks like, finally, the BBC have connected the dots and realised what made Top Gear so popular. I'll be there on Sunday evening, watching on with interest.