TV review: Taskmaster

A photo of a pineapple on a bright yellow background. pxhere

A look back in advance of Series 11

Have you ever tried to paint a picture of a horse while riding a horse? Identify the contents of a pie without breaking the pastry? Fill an egg cup with tears? Make a Swedish person blush? Impress a mayor? Conceal a pineapple on your person? Paint an upside-down self-portrait using only condiments?

These ridiculous tasks – and many, many more – are what contestants have to face when they compete on Taskmaster, a British panel game show that will start its 11th season next week.

Every season of Taskmaster features five comedians who compete with one another to score points on a variety of nonsensical tasks set by the Taskmaster – actor and comedian Greg Davies – and his assistant Alex Horne. The person with the most points at the end of the episode will win the prize pool made up of items that the contestants themselves have been tasked with bringing in, such as their “most unusual item,” “best piece of memorabilia,” “most flamboyant clock” or “best form of protection.” And in the grand tradition of British panel shows and their worthless prizes, the overall series winner takes home a trophy shaped like the Taskmaster’s head.

Horne initially created the panel game show during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2010, and the show was first adapted for television in 2015. Most of the series’ older episodes are posted to the show’s official YouTube channel if you’re looking for a taste of some of the wonderful weirdness – and now, it’s time for some brand-new nonsense!

I got into Taskmaster earlier this year after YouTube extrapolated my love for one specific weird British panel show where the rules are made up and the points don’t matter (Citation Needed) into a general love for that sort of thing – plus, quite frankly, I’d already been stuck inside for months and was running out of things to watch. So, I clicked over to the first episode … then proceeded to binge the next eight seasons.

But even when I had watched everything that was available online, I still wasn’t ready to be done with it. So, I also watched the New Zealand Taskmasterspinoff (which was pretty good, though their Taskmaster and Taskmaster’s assistant didn’t quite capture the magic of the friendly/hostile/threatening/flirty dynamic between Greg and Alex), and even delved into the Finnish spinoff Suurmestari (which was thoroughly excellent, and well worth watching with the subtitles on). Other Taskmasterspinoffs have been made in Belgium, Sweden, Spain, Denmark, Norway and the US.

For me, Taskmaster strikes a delightful balance between featuring new people often enough to keep it interesting and also keeping contestants around for long enough (ten episodes, plus a few returning victors in the Champion of Champions seasons) that we really get to know and love them.

The mix of tasks in every season runs the gamut from incredibly simple to almost impossible, making for a wonderful viewing experience. Every time I’m watching, I’m always asking myself – how would I have done that? Would I have thought of that weird solution somebody came up with (such as, when the task was to high-five a 55-year-old, high-fiving three people whose ages added up to 55 instead).

The show is quite formulaic – and for me, that’s actually a selling point. I do enjoy relaxing to a reality show competition as much as the next person, but I don’t always love it when they try to up the stakes every season with new devious twists and extra-difficult challenges. Sometimes, it’s just nice to turn on the TV and know that Greg Davies is going to be scowling at people, Alex will be intimidated, a pineapple and/or a coconut and/or a swede (either a person from Sweden or the vegetable that we here in Canada would normally call a rutabaga) will probably show up somewhere in the episode, and the white envelopes with the red wax seals will always have some sort of baffling task inside.

That’s not to say there aren’t also plenty of surprises – but they fit within the formula rather than breaking it to up the stakes. Every once in a while, a contestant will be given a task that they will later find out (usually to their extreme dismay) was given only to them, rather than to all five competitors – everything from the daunting challenge of counting hundreds of baked beans and rice grains to the enjoyable task of “hav[ing] the most fun on a bouncy castle for one hour,” to the simply ridiculous “make the most fish puns.” Also, every once in a while, contestants will be handed an extremely easy task … only to find out that it was the prelude to the second, much more difficult, main event.

The other most wonderful part of Taskmaster is that, because it’s so low-stakes, there’s none of the high-key emotional or financial drama that tends to come along with other reality shows, and no one is even really being judged on things they’re supposed to be good at. There’s no part of me that feels bad at laughing when contestants go absolutely feral on a task. No one’s life is going to be monumentally changed by which one of them made the tallest tower using food cans or sneezed the fastest, so when at least one of the comedians completely misunderstands what they’re supposed to be doing or messes it up (as happens in spectacular fashion at least once a season), we can all take it in the spirit of good-hearted fun.

The upcoming season of Taskmaster, which premieres on March 18, will feature comedians Charlotte Ritchie, Jamali Maddix, Lee Mack, Mike Wozniak, and Sarah Kendall. The first episode is titled “It’s Not Your Fault,” which is already a promising sign (all the episode titles are direct quotes from somewhere in the episode). And you can bet I will be right there watching every moment of the ridiculousness that’s about to ensure. Join me, won’t you?

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