If this week’s episode of Top Gear was a lap, it can best be described as a predictable but strong start, stuttering and stalling in the middle, before regaining control for a very entertaining finish.
The new series of the motoring show has started very strongly over the last month, but this time it feels like there’s just something missing to push it that little bit further over the line and continue to win over the sceptics still not totally sold after the end of the previous regime.
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As ever, Matt LeBlanc’s enthusiasm, charisma and wit carries a lot of this episode, and he kicks things off nicely behind the wheel of a Dodge Demon, which gets introduced with an incredible video package showing off the muscle car. The presenter also gets out of the most legitimately laugh-out-loud moments of the series as he describes the sound of the engine as “Satan passing a kidney stone”.
There’s a very nice build to Matt getting behind the wheel on a drag strip, and the introduction to drag racing as a spot really helps with the anticipation, which only increases when the Dodge goes mano-a-mano with a Lambo. It’s wonderful stuff – but the segment really picks up a level when Matt is tasked by NASA with helping land the notoriously difficult and temperamental ER-2 aircraft.
If that last sentence sounds rather cool, it’s because it is. Joey from Friends attempting to help with the landing of a NASA-approved research plane – which the hosts point out is basically a fancy way of saying “spy plane” – is simply epic.
If it seems like this review is neglecting Matt’s co-stars Rory Reid and Chris Harris so far, there’s a good reason for that. It’s a fair chunk of the episode before we get a peek at the pair, with the episode’s segments feeling more isolated than the grander, challenge-filled road trips earlier in the season.
On one hand, it’s nice to have an episode focused on the cars – Rory’s breakdown of the South Korean-made Kia Stinger and Hyundai i30n is informative and nicely done. But the issue here is after setting the tone over the past few weeks with an underworld of Japanese supercars and a mini tank-led hunt for Big Foot, the lack of outrageous challenges or big set pieces earlier in the show feel a little dull in comparison.
Thankfully, it picks up with the return of the Star In The Reasonably Priced Car segment, which sees comedians, Mock The Week co-stars and close friends Dara O Briain and Ed Byrne going head to head. The humour and energy flows back into the studio here, with both of them admitting to being incredibly competitive.
Ed – who blames the wet weather during his run before the laps have even aired – jokes as he takes one corner: “Stick that up Brian Cox’s bum!” It’s the light-hearted injection the episode needed, and it runs nicely into the final segment.
The look on Chris’ face as he shows off his own personal Citreon 2CV is pure joy, and could be bottled up to cure our bad moods any day of the week. Matt joins him to give it a spin, and the banter and charm is back – we don’t want to say it seems like Rory is a third wheel, but there’s been a clear focus this series when the boys are away from the studio.
Regardless, this segment shows why Top Gear bosses are doing well to keep focusing on the pair, because the ridiculous tasks and genuine laughter is the highlight of the episode as they drove the car round the French countryside.
They test the 2CV’s main criteria when it was first designed, including driving through a bumpy field with a basket of eggs without breaking any, and carrying 50 kilos of farm produce – they opt for actual live sheep, rather than something easy like potatoes.
Taking the thing for a race in the 2CV championships only adds to the excitement here, as Matt looks to be won over and the pair of them seem to be having the time of their lives.
By the end of the episode, there’s a startling realisation. This year, the enjoyment is coming from the personalities and the banter between them. Yes, it stalls a little this week, but the fact we noticed its absence suggests Matt, Chris and Rory have finally started to step out of the shadow of their predecessors.
Top Gear airs on Sundays at 8pm on BBC Two.