After a bravura opening lap it was straight into the hard shoulder for the rebooted Top Gear last week. The biggest car-crash was not on the track but the couch as grumpy guest David Tennant had a tiff with Chris Harris over the immensely controversial subject of family hybrids and Matt LeBlanc lived up to his name with a performance big on vacant looks and low on personality.
An awful lot was therefore riding on episode three. Was “Tennant-gate” a bump in the asphalt? Or did it illuminate underlying flaws which the show had hitherto papered over with desperate wodges of television tarmac? We had reached that crucial fork in the road where Top Gear would either hit its stride or suffer an embarrassing breakdown. There were grounds for suspecting it could go either way. Here is what we learned
1: Was this the best post-Clarkson episode yet?
Free-flowing banter, stunning road trips to Montenegro and California, an eccentric bit involving a shed and a muck-spreader…. the new Top Gear has never felt more like the old Top Gear. LeBlanc, Harris and third presenter Rory Reid were chatty and chummy and there was a confirmed outbreak of spontaneous laughter as they contemplated LeBlanc’s knowledge of toilet cleaning products. As a bonus, you weren’t constantly braced for an ill-considered gag about Americans/Mexicans/asylum seekers etc. Jeremy who?
2: LeBlanc speaks fluent Jezza
Say what you like about his plywood interview skills but the Friends actor knows his motors. Putting a swizzy new Aston Martin DB11 through its paces he delivered a petrolhead masterclass worthy of Jezza in his prime. Obscure statistics about turbo chargers and horse-power were trotted out while dead-on-arrival lines such as "the Aston Martin is a British institution… like the Royal Family or crumpets” were negotiated with dignity intact.
3: But the new gimmick was a bit silly
Oh dear – no sooner had we convinced ourselves Top Gear was back to being Top Gear than LeBlanc was unveiling a new whiz-bang feature: "left at Hammerhead".
This was – and yes, I am actually typing these words in a Top Gear review – an inter-dimensional portal which transported LeBlanc from a Surrey test track to a dramatic mountain-side in Montenegro. Because a rift in the space-time continuum is obviously what Top Gear was missing for all those decades.
4: The banter went from zero to sixty in record time
"Doctor No-Hair," LeBlanc pretend-jeered at "Bond Villain" Chris Harris as the pair raced up that Montenegrin mountain. "Get out of the way –I've a smug American to kill," Harris latter quipped, pursuing "LeBond" into a tunnel.
It was as canned as the tuna aisle at the supermarket but it worked. Though the presenters still have to convince in their new roles as matey muckers, they're much better actors than their predecessors. Consequently, while the back-and-forths are clearly scripted to death, the results generally go down smoothly.
A follow-up chase by local police was properly epic, too, yet stayed within Top Gear’s motoring remit (the spotlight was always on LeBlanc’s Aston Martin and Harris’s Mercedes). Even the “hilarious” reveal that LeBlanc wasn’t wearing trousers landed. Who would you rather see as a trouser-boycotting James Bond? Former Friends star Matt LeBlanc or noted global heartthrob Jeremy Clarkson?
5: They've given up even pretending to be like the old crew
"It's…The Stig!" said LeBlanc as the resident test-driving enigma took the Aston Martin for a burn. Last season, Chris E***s had painfully aped Jeremy Clarkson’s lengthy “Some say…” preamble when introducing the helmeted mystery man. No such affectations here. They aren't even pretending to be the old Top Gear any more – and it's entirely for the best.
6: The new guests aren't quite Hollywood calibre, are they?
Tamsin Greig is a distinguished stage and screen actress who has co-starred alongside LeBlanc in cult sitcom Episodes. But she is hardly A-list and and, on her journey to Dunsfold Aerodrome, is unlikely to have been waylaid by Mad Max-style gangs of paparazzi and autograph hunters. Is the show struggling to secure marquee names? Or has it been decided that, in light of LeBlanc’s evident discomfort on the couch, it’s better to go with obscure-yet-chatty guests such as gregarious Greig?
Whatever the logic, she proved an inspired booking and coaxed all three hosts out of their man-shells. A back-and-forth regarding LeBlanc’s knowledge of toilet cleaners, in particular, was off-the-cuff funny. “Does he look like a man who buys his own toilet cleaner?" chuckled Harris. "Fairy Liquid?” shot back the baffled LeBlanc before inquiring of Greig: “The Archers…is that an archery show?"
7: Sabine Schmitz is better as guest than presenter
"Your name is Rory Reid or Rory Worried?" asked the professional racer as she drove the jolliest of the hosts around Germany’s notorious Nürburgring in a turbocharged Volkswagen. It was a groaner worthy of Peak Clarkson and revealed a more relaxed side to Schmitz who, as official member of the presenting team last season, had been been deeply jittery. In her defence, she had the misfortune to be teamed with human panic attack Chris Evans. In contrast, her jaunt with the unassuming Reid allowed her do what she did best: drive at speed and yell "woo hoo!” over and over.
8: The jury is out on the Matt-destroys-things bit
It would seem international screen icon Matt LeBlanc has a thing for top-of-the-line slurry spreaders. A fortnight ago, he had used a power-hose to etch his name on a car door. This week LeBlanc fed a shed and a family saloon into a manure-delivery device the size of a Space Shuttle. He laughed, he waggled his eye-brows, he laughed some more. Mucky Matt hasn’t looked this happy since splashing around in that fountain at the start of Friends.