In recent years, it has become customary for season premieres of Top Gear to begin with a teeth-rattling coming-attractions reel full of insane-looking highlights from the episodes to come. On tonight's kick-off for the show's 17th season, the opening credits looked the same as usual, the cover version of the Allman Brothers' "Jessica" (the greatest song ever recorded after the Allman Brothers' "Blue Sky" and the Allman Brothers' "Melissa") sounded the same, the set looked the same, and the three hosts all looked basically the same below their hair lines. (Above their hair lines, at least two of them look to be confronting some issues.) But although Jeremy Clarkson hit his marks and bellowed at the camera with the same old bombastic hyperbole, he didn't have a greatest-hits-to-come montage to introduce, which at the very least counts as a serious waste of bombast.
No doubt many will panic over this. They may leap to the conclusion that the concept and the presenters are finally played out and that the season ahead is an utter dog, from which the editors were unable to extract even a couple of minutes of genuine thrills. Based on most of the rest of the show, there may be reason to hold out hope that this was just the show's subtle way of demonstrating the dangers in reckless experimentation with a proven formula. On more than one past occasion, Clarkson has been driven to apoplexy by car manufacturers and other gits who have put him in the thankless position of pointing out that they have stupidly tried to fix something that wasn't broken. Maybe it was just that he'd missed us so much, but Clarkson seemed to be unable to do anything but praise everything that was handed to him—to the skies, which is the only way he knows how to do anything. He seemed to be having the best time he'd ever have in his life when he got behind the wheel of a BMW Coupe and confided that, just when you'd think it couldn't get any better, you can push a button and "the whole car shimmies. It's like a little shiver of excitement, the kind of feeling you would get if someone suddenly gave you permission to set fire to Piers Morgan."
It turned out that this was just his way of warming up for the full-throated tribute to the Jaguar E-type and its new, improved edition, the Eagle Speedster, which closed the show. Clarkson's surprising reaction to the improved version was that it actually was an improvement. This would have been a bit of a shock no matter what he was talking about, but it was that much more amazing considering that he'd just finished describing the E-type Jag as the last thing Britain had ever made that might inspire genuine feelings of national pride, with the possible exception of the Concorde. Thinking it over again when he was back in the studio, Clarkson allowed as how one might include Monty Python in that honor roll. ("What about the vacuum cleaners without bags in them?" asked Richard Hammond.) Feeling that the world had not done enough to recognize the 50th birthday of the Jaguar, Clarkson tried to make up for it by staging a tribute that included vintage aircrafts soaring above the white cliffs of Dover. Maybe that ate up so much of the budget that there was nothing left to pay the editors to put in overtime to finish the season highlight reel.
The Jaguar segment had just enough of a whiff of a wistful history lesson conducted by someone who would like to buried in a perfectly stored World War II-era monoplane that it threatened to impinge on James May's territory. May himself seemed in good spirits, though his hair has gotten grayer and his flesh a little more ashen than before, to the point that his doctor should probably caution him against doing any more of those drunken road-trip series with Oz Clarke. To test the new Mini Rally Car, May decamped to Lillehammer to sit next to Chris Meek, "intercontinental rally champion and quite possibly the fastest ginger on the planet", as he raced Olympic gold medalist Amy Williams, who employed her preferred method of transportation, the skeleton bobsled. May pointed out that Williams' sport required her chin to sometimes touch the ice she was sledding across and asked Meek if they, too, would be experiencing that same sensation. "Only if we're going upside down," said Meek.
Richard Hammond somehow landed the most Johnny Knoxvillesque segment, in which he hit the streets of Johannesburg to try out a spin on the Hummer called the Marauder, a military-designed vehicle that probably has its own zip code. Watching him use it to smash through brick walls and flatten cars, you had to feel a little sorry that he didn't have access to a time machine. If he could have taken the thing back to the days of the apartheid era, he might have brought the Afrikaner government to its knees inside of a week. (When he got bored, he stuck plastic explosives under the Marauder and blew it up. When the smoke cleared, it looked, as he said, as if "there was a fight between the Marauder and the Earth, and the Earth lost.")
Top Gear is always at its sustained best when the three hosts are out in the field interacting with each other, so the real test of the new season will come next week, when the producers ship them all off to Monte Carlo together. I can't imagine how much fun this show is for people who know and care anything about cars, but I can testify myself that it's a hoot for those of us who don't. Actually, if you do love cars and aren't Bill Gates, that might be a problem. Because there's always that depressing moment when the hosts interrupt their spiel about what they love or hate about the amazing toys they're playing with and reveal how much they cost.
- Tonight's Star in a Reasonably Priced Car was "rock legend and unbelievably nice guy" Alice Cooper. I'm not convinced that the people in the studio audience had any idea who Alice was, but that was probably all to the good, since it meant that his stories about his Grand Guignol stagecraft and unfortunate chickens and how he uses golf as a substitute for alcoholism, which are overfamiliar to anyone who's ever crashed in front of VH-1 for an afternoon, might have been news to them. Anyway, Clarkson really did seem tickled to meet him, and to his credit, Alice was in very good humor about his terrible stats on the track. And it's always a treat for those of us watching on BBC America when the "star" is someone we've actually heard of.
- Clarkson, on a vehicle that may be designed a little too strenuously to seem "youthful" and edgy: "I think this is a car that probably, at night, when you leave, entertains itself by spitting at the elderly."
- Clarkson on the Stig: "Some say he doesn't know what dogs are for…"
- May, on the power and dangers of creative visualization: "While Amy imagined her way down the mountain, I imagined Chris going too fast in the dark and the pair of us rolling over the brink in a huge fireball."