‘Top Gear’ made its much-awaited return to our screens on Sunday night, with viewers and critics alike noting a change in the atmosphere (whether for positive or negative), now that Chris Evans has taken over hosting duties from Jeremy Clarkson.
Over the months since Chris was confirmed as the show’s new host - as a member of the new seven-strong presenting team - the show has been dogged with rumours that things weren’t going so well behind the scenes, which the BBC have repeatedly been forced to deny.
The first episode of the new series has received seriously polarised reviews, with some slamming Chris Evans’ presenting style (as would always be the case when taking over from a presenter as divisive as Jeremy Clarkson) and the lack of changes to the original format, while others have remained slightly more optimistic about the future of ‘Top Gear’.
Here is just a selection of what the critics had to say…
Parts of the jury may still be outraged, but if this opening episode was anything to go by lowly TV producers should probably give Jeremy Clarkson a wide berth for the next few days. He might not be in a punching mood but he will surely be feeling a little more grizzly than usual.
Of course he will have enjoyed his loyal fans coming to his rescue and giving Evans an absolute pasting on social media, but Clarkson has been around the track enough times to know that even though this reboot seemed a little over eager at times, it was anything but a disaster.
Chris Evans’ revamp was at best like watching a Top Gear tribute band performing one of those unfunny celebrity sketches on Comic Relief and at worst a motorised adaptation of TFI Friday (TFI Sunday) with lots of audience participation (mostly whooping and cheering at Evans’ encouragement) and details like ‘the guys and girls from my local Indian restaurant’ in the crowd. Hold me back.
While Evans shouted like someone who had never done live TV before or thought Top Gear was a kids’ show, Matt Le Blanc awkwardly read the autocue and laboriously trading on the fact that he was Evans cheered, ‘the first ever non UK host of Top Gear.’
The first challenge of the first trip - an overheating car engine, gives Chris and Matt more chance to show the fruits of their bonding. It seems forced.
Matt LeBlanc is left on his own for a few minutes, and his laid-back style gives us hope for the future of the show - relaxed, deadpan and enjoying himself, even in the rain in an open-topped car. I wish he’d lay off the Bill Brysonisms, though, mispronouncing city names to draw attention to his alien abroad schtick.
It's the same mix as before, pretty much: Obscure, not always interesting cars, that no-one much can afford to buy, filmed in expensive locations that most Top Gear viewers can only dream about visiting. Stunts. Stupid stunts. Dreadful cliche-packed items that are as worn out as bald tyres.
Do they really think there is anything novel about taking the mickey out of Reliant three-wheelers, cars long since passed into history and a feature of British comedic life since at least when Del Boy acquired one in 1982? Or that driving a small car into the back of a transporter while on the move hadn't already been done (better) in The Italian Job (1967)?
It’s not a disaster. It’s polished, the stunts (so many of them!) are fun, the tweaks are improvements. But it is a shame there wasn’t more in the way of refreshing the show itself. It’s just new people doing same old same old.
They – the members of the mob – won’t be happy though, and won’t forgive them for not being their predecessors. And the lack of format change isn’t going to help that either. When something is so very closely associated with someone, or even with three people, say, it’s hard – when suddenly there are other people doing it – not to feel that something is missing.
The first episode in this new era was a strange affair. In many respects it was a pale imitation of the previous hosts' popular show, and in others it was a very enjoyable programme about cars. It just depends what you're here for.
We hope that in time, Chris, Matt and co will find their feet and lose any nervousness and awkwardness. If they get given plenty of time and patience, this could grow into something great in its own right, but for now, it just feels a bit... odd.
Indoors, the studio sequences were lively, if also slavish to the old style. There was no sign of the reported lack of chemistry between Evans and LeBlanc, and while the former worked the crowd like the polished media pro he is, the Friends star added some much needed sardonic grunt, instantly justifying his choice as co-host. It’s a partnership that should improve with time.
Given time to bed in, there’s little doubt that we will warm to the new regime. This time next year, most people – especially those who don’t subscribe to Amazon – will probably have forgotten what all the fuss was about.
'Friends' star LeBlanc is the show’s ace card. Whether he was tootling up to Blackpool in the pouring rain in a Reliant Rialto or speeding through the Moroccan desert in an Ariel Nomad, he was effortlessly cool, witty and evidently lives and breathes cars.
However, the real test for Top Gear wasn’t tonight’s episode; it’s the ones that follow. The Clarkson comparisons and furore can now finally end, but that also means the show has to stand up for itself and win its own viewers.
Judging from the series opener, LeBlanc and Evans have a little work to do but are motoring in the right lane to their own success story.
The more positive news is that, if you hadn’t seen the Clarkson version of Top Gear, BBC2 would have a perfectly serviceable new motoring show on their hands.
But that’s the eternal problem for Top Gear now. We have seen all this stuff done before and done better. So it just feels a bit like Davie Moyes at Man United, and he’s got a slightly morose version of Joey from Friends as his assistant.
'Top Gear' continues on Sunday (5 June) at 8pm on BBC Two.