When we heard about Apple TV+’s new series Long Way Up, we had remembered that Ewan McGregor had done the whole “travel the world on a motorcycle” thing on other series, but we didn’t realize how long ago it actually was. Long Way Round was in 2004 and Long Way Down was in 2007. So we figured it would be fun to see McGregor, now pushing 50, and his buddy Charley Boorman, who’s over 50, do a trip as middle-aged guys. But what we ended up seeing made us feel less than encouraged.
Opening Shot: Ewan McGregor talks to directors David Alexanian and Russ Malkin about the first two motorcycle adventures he and his best friend Charley Boorman went on: Long Way Round in 2004 and Long Way Down in 2007.
The Gist: As McGregor explains, the two buddies always intended on filming another adventure, but life got in the way, and the two of them lost touch. But when Boorman got into a serious motorcycle accident that essentially shattered his right leg, among other serious injuries, the two buddies reconnected. A plan was made to do a third series, this time with the two of them riding from the southern tip of South America all the way up to Los Angeles in about 90 days.
But to do that takes months or preparation, as the first episode of Long Way Up examines. McGregor, Boorman, Alexanian and Malkin get together at McGregor’s Los Angeles-area home and start to discuss how ambitious they want this new trip, the first one in 12 years, to be. This time, McGregor, who has become an advocate of solar power — he powers his house with solar cells — and electric vehicles — he’s having his vintage VW Beetle converted into an EV — he wants to do the entire ride on electric motorcycles.
There’s a couple of problems with that, though: Electric motorcycle development has lagged behind electric car development, and range is a big factor. When the quartet visit an EV expert, the old friend is excited to see if they can do it, but warns them that pretty much all e-motorcycles get at most 75 miles to a charge. To compound this problem, charging stations that allow for fast charging will be sparse, especially in areas where McGregor and Boorman will be in wilderness or other areas without a ton of people.
But the four of them traverse the US and Europe in search of solutions, with the production staff settling into a London office. Harley-Davidson agrees to modify their prototype electric motorcycles to have a longer range and be more rugged. A new electric vehicle company in Michigan, Rivian, says they can build two electric support vehicles for the crew in the span of a number of weeks, despite having just one prototype assembled. They also commit to installing charging stations all along the 10,000+-mile route.
Those two challenges are the main thrust of the episode, as is the planning of the route. The Boorman gets seriously hurt again in another motorcycle accident, but somehow recovers in time to get on a bike again and be ready for the flight down to Ushuaia, Argentina, where the trip is set to begin in the snowiest winter (remember: September is the end of winter in the Southern Hemisphere) they’ve had there in 25 years.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of?Long Way Round and Long Way Down, of course, except with 2019-20 technology and two guys who are in their late 40s-early 50s on those bikes.
Our Take: As someone who hasn’t done a ton of international travel since the mid-’00s, I get McGregor and Boorman’s desire to get back out there after a long layoff, even if we’re never going to ride around on expensive motorcycles like they do. McGregor loves being one with the road, and he also loves how much these trips bond he and his old friend together, through all the ups and downs. And what they love to do is get off their bikes at random places and explore. The fact that both have been longing to do that, despite being on other projects, over the last dozen years, brings this massive project down to a level that anyone with a wanderlust can relate to.
What I wasn’t a fan of was the companies bending over backwards to get McGregor, Boorman and the production team vehicles to accommodate their desire to do this trip with electric motorcycles. Yes, we understand McGregor’s desire to leave a smaller carbon footprint on this trip, but for some reason he and the rest of the crew wouldn’t take no for an answer when they were told that the tech just isn’t there yet.
While I’m all for the ingenuity both H-D and Rivian threw into their respective projects on such short notice, and was happy they were able to deliver, the millions of dollars and hours of “free” manpower — the H-D exec admitted that the entire team volunteered their off time to upgrade the bikes — made us feel squinchy. I mean, Rivian committed to installing 10,000 miles’ worth of charging stations, for heaven’s sake!
Even in 2019, when we were free to travel and do things like leave the house, such an expenditure would have made us uncomfortable. Instead of showing two guys on their two favorite bikes making the journey, like the previous two series did, they had companies hand them unproven technology worth millions and had them say, “have fun!” Listen, we get that if McGregor and Boorman can accomplish this, both companies would benefit greatly from having their names attached to the show. But something about this didn’t feel right, and it made us enjoy the first episode a lot less.
Sex and Skin: Maybe when McGregor talks about feeling the road under him because the e-cycles don’t rumble, but that’s about it.
Parting Shot: Boorman and McGregor see the city of Ushuaia out their airplane window, framed against snowy mountains and a colorful sunrise.
Sleeper Star: The staff that keeps this operation going, and the people at the various companies who went the extra kilometer or dozen to get the vehicles ready for the trip.
Most Pilot-y Line: None, really.
Our Call: STREAM IT. We’re on board for the thrill of the trip and the stunning visuals we’ll see on Long Way Up, plus seeing McGregor and Boorman renew their friendship will be fun. But the privilege shown on this trip is staggering and detracts from our enjoyment of the show.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.