Monday, January 30

When will Top Gear get back to its best? No time soon | topgear

Yo will admit it’s been a while since anyone thought about Top Gear with any degree of intent, but it is still going, out there, revving around. The last time you probably thought about it was when Matt LeBlanc was hosting; he is not hosting it any more. Or when someone drove a tank to the BBC to protest Jeremy Clarkson being fired 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 “my mate Chris quite likes cars?”, and this is the third full year they have hosted together. They are getting there: Flintoff is such a blokey TV natural that it’s almost a shame he wasted all that time playing sports. Harris is a calm anchor who stops the others from getting too “second-wedding stag do”, and Paddy McGuinness is Paddy McGuinness. To borrow a football analogy, they are quite Arsenalesque in their club rebuild: you can see the green shoots of a viable performance here, you can see the personnel just about starting to gel despite sporadic patches of form, but sadly it is all still overshadowed for that really good lineup they had in the early-to-middle aughts. Binning all this off and starting again would be foolish, but watching them get there slowly isn’t particularly fun, either.

My problem with this setup is that I hate Paddy McGuinness. This is my issue and I am taking steps to resolve it, but fundamentally, he’s a to-the-bones ITV man locked in a BBC contract, and this experiment is never going to 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, chuckling-at-his-own-puns, too-many-hand-gestures, “oh -ho-ho-yes!”, “cheeky bouncer the girls only flirt with so they don’t have to queue so long” shtick ever really worked. Take Me Out couldn’t have been hosted by anyone but Paddy McGuinness; Paddy McGuinness cannot host anything but Take Me Out. This is why Top Gear still isn’t quite there, even a fair few seasons in. Essentially, Paddy McGuinness belongs in front of a podium encouraging a girl from Huddersfield to do the worm in a bandeau dress. Put him behind the wheel of a car, without any ad breaks to introduce while widely clapping his hands together, and he looks lost and a little distraught.

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This all suggests the new series of Top Gear is a doomed folly the BBC is only investing in because it holds the title rights, which isn’t quite true. The new episode (Sunday, 8pm, BBC One) sees Paddy, Freddie and Chris embark on a road trip across Florida, taking in three facets of the state’s unique car culture, and I have to say it’s really quite good. We start in Miami with the donk racing scene, where the boys (they are always “boys”, not “lads” – this is informed by McGuinness, the show’s de facto banter leader; “Right then boys, whatwedoin?”) compete along quarter-mile drags in some of the most beautiful vehicles I’ve ever seen.

Then they work across the everglades and compete in swamp racing, which again sees cars modified for their surroundings. Every country on Earth has its own car culture (we have two distinct ones: “caring too much about a vintage Jaguar” or “revving a lowered Subaru around an edge-of-town roundabout”) and this one is unique to Florida. Then further west to a Nascar ring set up by a YouTuber, where they race retired police cars sold at auction. It’s good, and feels new enough to be its own thing. By the end of the classic Top Gear run, the show was mostly just Richard Hammond dramatically saying “what is that” while looking at a slightly old car Jeremy Clarkson bought as a joke off eBay, while James May blinked too much and thought about toys. The new show knows to move away from men over 40 trying really hard at banter, and instead talk to other people about car culture, and it’s far better for it.

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It’s still not there yet – the cold studio opening is still agonizingly stilted and they’re going to need to fix that (how? Sending Patrick Joseph McGuinness to an improv class? It’s the only way I can think of) before this show can get back in the Champions League. But for now, there’s progress being made. There’ll be at least 33 more series of Top Gear in our lifetimes. We may as well enjoy some of them.

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