Screen Test

TV review: The new Top Gear lacks the spontaneity and charm of previous seasons

Top Gear’s Matt LeBlanc and Chris Evans (above); and Outlander’s Tobias Menzies, Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan (in New York in April).
Top Gear’s Matt LeBlanc and Chris Evans (above); and Outlander’s Tobias Menzies, Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan (in New York in April).PHOTO: BBC

Outlander goes for female viewers, but Top Gear loses its bromance edge

It was a struggle not to make a face when reading descriptions pegging the sexy historical fantasy drama Outlander - a time-travelling, bodice-ripping romance now available on Netflix - as "a girl show" or "Game Of Thrones for women".

I am always a bit suspicious when something is marketed as being more suited to a particular gender. As well as being possibly the most boring way to sell or spin something, that claim is, more often than not, built on dubious assumptions about gender identity and preferences.

Yet this popular series does offer a counterpoint to the usual "male gaze" eroticism of series such as Game Of Thrones, and the debate that has sprung up around it raises interesting questions about whether giving female viewers what they ostensibly want - in this case, lots of supposedly "female-friendly" sex scenes and romance - automatically makes Outlander feminist, as some have argued.


Top Gear’s Matt LeBlanc and Chris Evans (above); and Outlander’s Tobias Menzies, Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan (in New York in April). PHOTO: BBC

For all that, the premise of the show - based on Diana Gabaldon's best-selling novels and nominated for Best Drama Series at last year's Golden Globes - is a little loopy.

British army nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) is on holiday in the Scottish highlands with husband Frank (Tobias Menzies), whom she is reuniting with after World War II.

But the reunion is cut short when she touches a sacred stone and is inexplicably whisked to the 18th century.

There, she finds herself caught up in a turbulent time, with the Scottish clans chafing against the English and on the verge of joining the Jacobite rebellion to put a Catholic ruler on the throne.

Claire finds herself falling for Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), the handsome Scotsman who rescues her from a ruthless English soldier named Jack Randall (also played by Menzies), whom she learns is husband Frank's ancestor.

Cue plenty of torn-between- two-lovers angst, coupled with the fish-out-of-water predicament of a modern woman plunged into what might as well be the Dark Ages, all the while knowing that history does not favour her new Scottish friends.


Top Gear’s Matt LeBlanc and Chris Evans; and Outlander’s Tobias Menzies, Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan (above, in New York in April). PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

What checks the female- empowerment box for many is how Clare handles it all: She is a resourceful, plucky and compassionate heroine who wields her 20th-century smarts as a sort of superpower.

Then there are the show's much-discussed sex scenes, which are certainly more female-centric than most on-screen romps. That is a good thing, except you cannot quite escape the feeling of being trapped inside a Mills & Boon romance novel, with all the dusty old tropes that come with it, including the damsel in need of protection (even though it is sometimes Claire who does the rescuing).

As she falls in love with Jamie, who looks like an 18th-century Calvin Klein model, the morality of cheating on her husband is also glossed over on a technicality (in this case, the fact that Frank won't be born for another 200 years, although as it turns out it is not quite that simple).

  • VIEW IT /OUTLANDER– SEASONS 1 AND 2

  • Netflix

    3/5 stars

    TOPGEAR– SERIES 23

    SuperSports2 (StarHub TV Channel 202), Wednesday,8pm

    2.5/5 stars

The camera loves Balfe, but she can be a little one-note when channelling Claire's inner steel and turmoil. And as progressive as the writers are in terms of female sexuality, there is an over-reliance on rape as a plot engine and a cheap way to add complexity to characters.

Outlander is a welcome addition to the sexed-up, faux-historical drama genre that Game Of Thrones still dominates, but you wish it would do more with the fact that Claire is literally ahead of her time here instead of just making her an all-knowing healer or Forrest Gump-like figure in history.

Top Gear is another show that is often marketed along gender lines.

But male or female, a lot of its fans came for the cars, but stayed for the banter and chemistry among long-time hosts Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond, which was so on-point, it often seemed unscripted.

Following Clarkson's ignominious sacking for attacking a producer, the decision to relaunch the series with new hosts Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc was thus a gamble on the British media personality and former Friends star being able to replicate that bromance.

Five episodes into the new series, it is not clear if they can.

Top Gear has, at best, only ever been a pseudo-serious car show, its cursory comparisons never fully satisfying true gearheads.

Instead, its international popularity comes from fetishising one of the most ubiquitous symbols of masculinity and socio-economic status in the modern world - and leavening that with a distinctive sense of humour and fun.

Both are in short supply this cycle. There is often an awkward vibe between Evans and LeBlanc, who rarely seem to deviate from the script in their somewhat stiff interactions.

There are the usual scripted one-liners, but the humour has often been tepid and some of the challenges are dramatically inert and too drawn-out - for example, the pilot episode's three-wheeler race to Blackpool, which would have benefited from a tighter edit.

You can understand that the British show would want to play up LeBlanc's Americanness for laughs, but it draws from that well a little too often to not expect diminishing returns.

Top Gear has been able to get away with all this before by coasting on the collective charm of its hosts. That needs a tune-up and fast.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2016, with the headline 'Gender hype'. Print Edition | Subscribe