When will Top Gear be back to its best? Soon no time | Top of the line
I will admit that it’s been a while since anyone thought of Top Gear with any degree of intention, but it just keeps going around in circles there. The last time you probably thought about it was when Matt LeBlanc was hosting; it no longer hosts it. Or when someone drove a tank to the BBC to protest Jeremy Clarkson’s firing from the show; that was seven years ago and the protest didn’t work.
The current hosts, in case you were wondering, are Paddy McGuinness from Take Me Out, Freddie Flintoff from Cricket and Chris Harris from ‘Dude Chris Likes Cars?’, and this is the third full year that they organize together. They get there: Flintoff is such a natural for television that it’s almost a shame he wasted all that time playing sports. Harris is a calm anchor who keeps others from getting too “married boy”, and Paddy McGuinness is Paddy McGuinness. To borrow a footballing analogy, they are quite Arsenalesque in rebuilding their club: you can see the green shoots of a viable performance here, you can see the staff just starting to gel despite sporadic patches of form, but unfortunately, everything is still eclipsed. by this very good formation that they had from the beginning to the middle. Throwing it all away and starting over would be foolish, but watching them slowly get there isn’t particularly fun either.
My problem with this setup is that I hate Paddy McGuinness. It’s my problem and I’m taking steps to fix it, but basically he’s an ITV man to the bone locked in a contract with the BBC, and this experiment will never work because of it. To understand McGuinness as a presenter, you have to realize that the only show he was ever equipped to host was Take Me Out, where his naff, laughing at his own puns, too many hand gestures, “oh -ho-ho-yes!”, “the cheeky bouncer the girls just flirt with so they don’t have to wait in line that long” shtick has always really worked. Take Me Out couldn’t have been hosted by anyone other than Paddy McGuinness; Paddy McGuinness can only host Take Me Out. That’s why Top Gear still isn’t here, even after a few seasons. Essentially, Paddy McGuinness belongs in front of a catwalk encouraging a girl from Huddersfield to do the worm in a bandeau dress. Put him behind the wheel of a car, with no commercial breaks to introduce while clapping his hands widely, and he looks lost and a bit distraught.
All of this suggests that Top Gear’s new series is a doomed madness in which the BBC only invests because it owns the ownership rights, which isn’t entirely true. The new episode (Sunday, 8pm, BBC One) sees Paddy, Freddie and Chris embark on a road trip through Florida, discovering three facets of the state’s unique car culture, and I have to say it’s really very good. We start in Miami with the donk racing scene, where the boys (they’re still “boys”, not “guys” – this is informed by McGuinness, the show’s de facto banter leader; “D’ okay, so boys, what do we do?”) a quarter-mile ride in some of the most beautiful vehicles I’ve ever seen.
Afterwards, they work through the Everglades and compete in swamp races, which again see cars modified for their environment. Every country on Earth has its own car culture (we have two distinct ones: “caring too much about a vintage Jaguar” or “spinning a lowered Subaru around a roundabout on the outskirts”) and this one is unique in Florida. Then further west to a Nascar circuit set up by a YouTuber, where they race retired police cars being auctioned off. It’s good, and feels new enough to be its own thing. At the end of Top Gear’s classic run, the show was mostly comprised of Richard Hammond dramatically saying “what’s this” while looking at a somewhat old car that Jeremy Clarkson bought as a joke on eBay, while James May blinked too much and thought about toys. The new show knows how to get away from men over 40 who are really trying to joke around and talk to other people about car culture, and it’s much better for that.
It’s still not there yet – the studio’s cold open is still excruciatingly stilted and they’re gonna have to fix that (how? Send Patrick Joseph McGuinness to an improv class? It’s the only way I can think) before this show can get back in the Champions League. But so far, there is progress. There will be at least 33 more Top Gear series in our lifetime. We may as well enjoy it.