The Grand Tour: Sand Job Review

Clarkson, Hammond and May’s penultimate adventure leads them to The Sahara Desert. Shocker, it’s not that fun. Dre Reviews – A Grand Tour: Sand Job.

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Dre Harrison Reviews

Score

6/10

Read time: 7 mins

It’s a weird time to be a fan of car shows. I promise I’ll get into my review of Sand Job in a minute, but the vibes going in were too hard to ignore. Watching it felt like watching my favourite Doctor Who story of the modern age – The Waters of Mars.

The first two-thirds are your standard base under siege story. But the final act; when the Doctor breaks the biggest rule of the Timelords – changing a fixed point in time, has huge consequences. At the end of the episode, David Tennant’s amazing Doctor, looks towards the Ood in the distance, realising the prophecy of his death is coming, the culmination of a Doctor whose ego had driven him too far, looks in fear and says: “Is this it? Is this where I die?”

It set up what we thought was going to be his final story – The End of Time. Sand Job marks the penultimate episode of The Grand Tour, the very last coming later this year. But the reflective tones of both it and the end of Tennant’s run ring familiar. This is it. The end of the car show in mainstream media as we know it.

Top Gear died a death in disgrace after trying too hard to rekindle the magic of what it was. Chris Evans was thrown under the bus for trying to reboot TGI Fridays with cars. Matt LeBlanc couldn’t take the travel, Rory Reid was a genuinely brilliant breath of millenial fresh air but felt like a third wheel. Chris Harris was the Internet journalist darling but got lost in the shuffle of trying to be a “glue guy” for two different eras.

Paddy McGuiness and Freddie Flintoff had great chemistry but weren’t taken seriously by the car lovers. And then they nearly killed Freddie trying too hard to get headlines via needless stunts. I still maintain there were many great episodes in this run that will hold up better than the CHM era of Top Gear ever will, but when your audience has had 15 years of comfort food, it’s hard to ween them off the egg and chips.

The Grand Tour has plodded along for 7 years now. I’ve largely been milquetoast on it. I looked at the show as an exciting opportunity for the original trio to break out from the creative boundaries of the BBC and push the envelope with a bigger budget.

Instead, they just decided to make the same show they’ve always made. A tent instead of an airfield. Celebrity interviews, long-running skit comedy and a bit more of a focus on the bigger trio films over car reviews. Like new (new) Top Gear, it’s had its moments, but it’s largely just sort of been there. It’s become a big film-only series since 2019, mostly because simply put – the crew’s too busy and probably too old to be going on the road for 5 months a year.

Jeremy Clarkson is 63, he says so in the Sand Job itself, and he openly admitted in the media tour going into this special (outside of his busy schedule of thinly veiled racism at Meghan Markle) that there isn’t much left for the car to accomplish. They’ve been to the Arctic, through jungle and rainforests, filmed in locations rarely seen on television, pushing the cars and themselves to their limits. There are few stories left to tell. But there are still a few pages left in this book.

The game has changed. As conventional TV has grown weary of the car show, the unshackled world of YouTube has become the new spot for car-based content. AutoTrader, Doug DeMero, Regular Car Reviews, Carwow and many more are the new bastions of what people want to see. And while I’m subbed to a couple of them and they’re great in their ways, it hits differently. Top Gear proved there was a place for cars on the biggest stage of mainstream entertainment. The end of that era is only proving that maybe it doesn’t anymore.

That takes me into The Sand Job itself. The Grand Tour’s penultimate special starts in the West African country of Mauritania and is based around Rally Raid. It’s a new trend that car makers have jumped into with the Porsche 911 Dakar and the Lamborghini Huracan Sterrato. But they’re nearly 250,000 pounds, can you do it for a tenth of that? So CHM buys a Supercharged Jaguar XKR, an Aston Martin DB9 Volante (I’m shocked that you can get one for 22K these days), and a Maserati, adapted for the conditions by having their suspension raised, headlights added and travelling gear.

The mission? Travel 1,000 miles across Mauritania, across the Sahara Desert and into Senegal to the end of the Dakar rally. The special stumbles out of the blocks with the classic blokey jape of needing a beer and a gin in a Muslim country that speaks Arabic and French, but the passing shot of just how long the one train was coming into their starting city of Choum was epic. Never seen anything like it.

The travel gets going and as with most modified TGT car tours, someone’s car goes wrong throughout, and in this one, it was Hammond’s Aston, which became a constant bother via a blown radiator, and a damaged electronic system that understandably couldn’t handle the 50-degree heat. It’s a genuinely admirable trait of the special. Hammond’s always been the practical one of the bunch and his battles with a nearly 20-year-old car that just came into production around the time of more complicated ECUs were genuinely good, sympathetic stuff.

The jokes in this special… Man, they tried. But it felt like a band that couldn’t hit the high notes anymore. There were two main themes. The fourth wall breaking of a touring fuel tanker that you knew was going to explode at some point because “Mr Wilman” the executive producer wanted a contrived explosion for the trailer. Fourth wall breaking can be cute when done right. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was brilliant at it, from the “Aunt Viv, you look very different” when Janet Hubert was replaced to the “If we so rich, why can’t we afford no ceiling” gag.

But when you give your hook away in the first half hour, you know it’s going to blow at some point. It tried to bait and switch that payoff a couple of times, but when it finally happened… it just kinda fell flat, especially when you consider the ridiculous setup it took for it to finally happen. Reminds me of their “Unscripted” Grand Tour episode when Jezza openly spoke about pushing the cat in the bin and getting on with it.

The other style of jokes is just awkward paranoia about foreign diseases. A tunnel with bats in the Sahara Desert lead to jabs at James’ injury in “A Scandi Flick”, contracting Ebola (A Grand Tour staple), and taking a dip in a river in Senegal threatening to kill him. It’s every over-worrying parent on a foreign holiday you’ve ever heard. Of course, chuck in a couple of sabotage pranks in there too and you have a classic CHM special.

None of it ever really raised more than a chuckle from me, which was a shame because it led to the other major problem I had with Sand Job – It just goes on for too long. Most TGT specials are around the 90-100 minute mark. I’m going to sound very “Jeremy Jahns” here but Sand Job is over 2 and a quarter hours and it drags on.

The tanker exploding would have probably made for a nice finale, but then the show goes on for another 40 minutes. They could have easily cut out a lot of the fluff around the British Embassy visit (more forced awkward humour), and another “build a raft” segment that’s been done half a dozen times before. Sand Job swings for the fences using a lot of their classic tricks but none of them produce more than a small laugh.

Where Sand Job does so well, is in a surprising element – the travel element of it shines. Travelling through Mauritania was genuinely fascinating. They’ve only given out 56 filming permits in their 63 years of existence so a lot of this country has rarely ever been seen on camera. Choum’s barren wasteland, to startling plastic waste of water bottles dumped by travellers, a subtle message about Global Warming.

It becomes a theme of the show in general in the raft building and the town of Chinguetti, a historic library village that’s slowly being buried by the sand and winds of the Sahara moving the entire desert south by four metres a year. To Nouakchott, where the city is so poor that most residents’ cars are falling apart, smashed to pieces but are still running just to get the locals from A to B. For those who don’t know, Mauritania only abolished slavery in 2007, and there’s some startling imagery like that British Embassy visit that accidentally says much about the state of the country as they travel, and what could happen if Global Warming is left unchecked.

Throw in TGT’s excellent production value, use of drones and a beautiful ending tribute to the beaches of Senegal and the Dakar finish was great TV and something even the greatest of the genre struggled to capture. A shame that ending was somewhat tamed by the unfortunate nature of the timing of the filming – right on top of Senegal’s civil unrest and riots in Dakar itself, but that wasn’t on them.

Overall, Sand Job isn’t bad. It’s a step down from A Scandi Flick, where that element of true reality made it more endearing than it probably aimed to be, and while nothing is ever truly bad, the special is a bit boring in places and the massive runtime is going to be a bit draggy in the final act. I look forward to their final episode in Zimbabwe as a final send-off for what’s become the car show on the Interwebs. But it’s a little sad to see that after 20 years of this incredible trio, the hits just aren’t hitting how they were years ago.

About the Author:

Dre Harrison

Leader of a Broadcast Journalism University project that went WAY out of hand. Even managed to parlay it into a WTF1 gig for a little while.

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