Too polished?

The last episode of Long Way Up aired on November 13, 2020. While everyone had to patiently wait for new episodes to come out every week, I had the privilege of watching the full series back in October and I’ve been mulling and sitting on my impressions ever since.   

Now that the last episode is up, I’m allowed to share my final thoughts. I’m glad I got a month to think it over and let it sink in. While the first three episodes I reviewed back in September piqued my interest and made me curious about the rest of the series, when I finished the eleventh one, I was left feeling a little "blah". I didn't get the pang of nostalgia I felt when came the time to say goodbye like I did the last two times.  

Truth be told, I didn’t bond with the series as much as I hoped I would. There has always been a production and planning quality to the Long Way trips, but this third chapter is a bit of an odd duck. I think it needs to be considered a standalone rather than a continuation.   

As I commented in my first review, this new series feels polished and shined. I’ll now add to that it also feels like it turned into a bit of a commercial event and that it almost, almost feels like a PR stunt.  

The Long Way Up Review

Sure, BMW didn’t let the guys take two GS on around-the-world trips out of the goodness of its heart—it knew it would give the bikes some unparalleled exposure. However, the guys didn’t have a BMW crew tagging along for support should the bikes fail nor were they expected to rave about the bikes and make appearances at BMW dealers to shake hands and kiss babies.   

I was originally on board with the whole (almost) all-electric Long Way concept. Promoting renewable energies and showing that electric vehicles can go the way is an important message to convey. Can they really, though?   

While several people have since accomplished similar continent crossings on electric motorcycles, the message I got from Long Way Up is that it can be done, provided you have a support crew ready to jump in and solve software issues. Because that’s pretty much what electric bikes are: big computers.   

By choosing to do the trip with prototype vehicles, it meant that both Rivian and Harley-Davidson sent support teams to follow along in case they had issues and they had to intervene on several occasions. Understandably, with things like electric powertrains, it’s good to have people who know what they’re doing around.

However, during Long Way Round and Down, part of the reality was figuring problems out—not have someone do it for you. The crew was pretty much left to its own device, doing some roadside fixes, seeking out a local mechanic, or making deals with Siberian truck drivers to tackle dangerous river crossings.  

In this case, one of the prime examples of the contrast between the first two series and the most recent one came when Ewan’s bike got a serious program error due to the charger workaround that allowed them to fast-charge.  

After consulting with Harley, they found out that the whole battery had to be replaced but that to achieve that, the bike would have to go to Panama. Instead of, say, jumping on Claudio’s bike to travel from Ecuador to Panama, Ewan decided he’d travel with his LiveWire. So, while they plane-hopped to Panama City, Charley continued the journey by road on his own.   

At this point, I think I had to side with Justin’s early argument that Harley gave the guys the wrong bikes. Not because the LiveWires didn’t pull their weight but because it watered down the essence of the series we’ve come to love.  

The second half of the series in particular loses a lot of momentum and it almost feels like we spend less time riding with the boys than we do sitting around waiting for things to happen. For instance, an important part of the last two episodes is dedicated to producer David Alexanian and the crew going through the process of buying and heavily modifying an old school bus to cross Mexico.   

The idea was to turn the bus into a makeshift camper that would allow them to load up the bikes and sleep on the bus without ever having to stop overnight because of safety concerns. They dedicated more time to the purchasing and building process than they (seemingly) spent on the bus. Within a few minutes of the show, they reached the U.S. border and had to leave the bus behind.

The Long Way Up Review

We're then rushed through the gorgeous desertic expanses of New Mexico and Arizona—which, frankly would have been worth more time—before making a pit stop in Palm Springs where families and friends are waiting. I would have liked to see the team get off the highway and take the time to show the Southern states as much love as they did the other countries. I’ve been to that part of the world and it’s worth the sight.   

We don’t want anyone to be unsafe or the crew to put its safety in jeopardy for our entertainment but the way the episode was pieced together almost completely ruined the whole thing for me. I forgot about Argentina’s beautiful sights or the struggles of crossing Bolivia and can almost only remember the gaudy camper-bus and how anticlimactic that whole portion of the show was.   

Sure, the last two trips were almost 20 years ago and a lot has happened since. We shouldn't expect two guys near their fifties to live this sort of trip the same way they did in their thirties. What I mean by that is that there comes a point in a traveler's life when hostels and hitchhiking are replaced by hotel rooms and car rentals. That’s what this series felt like.   

It resulted in a less relatable series. I didn’t feel that same connection with the guys I did over a decade ago. At the time, they were like us and their stories felt more vicarious. Not so much anymore.   

The series as a standalone is good and informative and entertaining. I said it before, but thanks to new video technologies like drones, the views they captured are spectacular. If you are willing to go into this with a new perspective without drawing too many parallels between this third chapter and the first two, I think you can still enjoy Long Way Up for what it is.

For those who were hoping to rekindle the little spark that made Long Way Round and Down so special and approachable, I think you’ll be left a little disappointed. It’s a Long Way in name but not so much in essence.