TV review: Amazon's VoD and Jeremy Clarkson's The Grand Tour

by Greg Dixon / 23 January, 2017

The Grand Tour.

Well, that’s it, I’m now officially out of control.

No sooner had internet giant Amazon launched its video-on-demand service in New Zealand – which it did with not much fanfare just before Christmas – than I went and signed up for the damned thing. It took barely a minute to do, but the decision didn’t even take that long.

It was, I realised in retrospect, utter madness on my part because it now brings the number of video-streaming services I’m paying for to three: Lightbox, Netflix and now Amazon Prime Video. This on top of a Sky subscription and, of course, all those free-to-air channels.

The big question for 2017, then, is just how much television do I really need? The answer certainly depends on my ability, not to ­mention ­inclination, to keep paying. But I ­suspect it will also hinge on how badly I find myself suffering from that most annoying of modern ­syndromes: Fomo, or fear of missing out.

And there is plenty to miss out on. Each of these services has lots of dross, but also unique, must-see shows. And Amazon Prime, although not boasting anywhere near the depth of original programming of Netflix, has a couple.

The first is The Man in the High Castle, a series adapted from a novel from the most-adapted science fiction writer of all time, Philip K Dick.

Set in the early 1960s, High Castle promises an exciting mix of ­counterfactual history and dystopian speculation, positing a world where the Axis powers won World War II and the US is divided between the Nazis and the Japanese, with a neutral zone in between. Hitler, it seems, is ill and a war between the two powers for control of America appears inevitable when he dies. Meanwhile, the ­Resistance plots.

It sounds cracking enough. But the first episode doesn’t quite deliver on the fertile premise: it’s heavy on atmosphere and theatrics but suffers from some duff dialogue. Fomo will probably keep me watching.

The series that is most likely to keep me locked in to Amazon Prime, however, might be The Grand Tour. This is the new home of the three stooges: Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May.

Clarkson, of course, was given his cards by the BBC last year for ­punching a colleague. Amazon clearly didn’t care and wanted something huge to help build demand for its video service.

So, can the stooges do it again and out-Top Gear Top Gear? It helped that the BBC’s retrofitted version failed earlier this year. But, on first ­viewing, there’s no doubt at all that, in The Grand Tour, normal ­transmission resumes – only this time with a budget equivalent to the GDP of France.

The 70-minute first episode, titled “The Holy Trinity”, opens with a Mad Max-like convoy across a Californian desert to a stage and a crowd at a Burning Man-like event (a sign says “Burning Van”, ho ho ho). There are jet flyovers, celebrity guests, travel to Britain, the US and Portugal, and the sort of boneheaded sight gags only big money can buy.

There is mocking of the BBC. “It’s very unlikely I’m going to be fired now,” Clarkson raves, “because we are on the internet, which means I could pleasure a horse.”

Regrettably, there is borderline racism as well. “We’re going to be like gypsies,” Clarkson continues, “only the cars we are driving are going to be insured.”

Those who hate Top Gear will hate this, too: it’s infantile, silly and as deep as a puddle. But you really can’t fault the chutzpah and the sheer joie de vroom vrooms as three old white men act the goat in very fast cars.

I do believe The Grand Tour is going to be my guilty treat over the coming weeks. As I say, out of control.

This article was first published in the January 14, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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