Here’s how deeply the absurdist British panel program Taskmaster has embedded itself in my psyche over the course of the last many months: Rather than taking its classic pandemic-era form of oh no! I’m in a crowd!! in public!!! and none of us are wearing masks!!!!, my most recent stress dream manifested as me waking up to a Twitter announcement that Taskmaster had been renewed for a twelfth—but final!—series.
To be clear: Taskmaster, which is currently in the final stretch of its Series 11 run, hasn’t yet announced anything about its inevitable twelfth series (though astute superfans have already sussed out a likely line-up)—nor has there been any hint that it’s living on borrowed time. To the contrary, it’s under contractual obligation to Channel 4 to run at least through Series 15. But when I tell you the *panic* I felt, jolting awake to actually scroll through Twitter and confirm it had all been a bad dream? I mean, I could obviously survive, if the world never got a new series of Taskmaster ever again, but damn if that world wouldn’t be a whole lot grayer.
Now that we’re in the fourteenth(?) month of the pandemic (at least here in the United States), anyone who’s even a little online is likely to have heard of Taskmaster—just off the top of my head, I can recall seeing its praises sung by everyone from YA authors to lit mag editors to longform “feelings” essayists, to one whole Vlogbrother (the latter of whom even started a pandemic-era podcast about it with his wife). When I started watching it, I called to harangue my brother into joining me, only to find he was already a full two series in. When I told my book club to seek it out, I came back a month later to hear that at least one of them—a newly minted lawyer and full adult—had been ecstatic to discover something she and her 14-year-old twin brothers could finally bond over. My parents love it. Pajama companies love it. Everyone loves it. Truly, with its endlessly flexible “ask comedians to accomplish increasingly arcane tasks then defend their decisions in person” premise, Taskmaster was already verging on “perfect show for literally any mood” territory before we were all trapped inside for a year; since then, the prospect of ending each day sinking into that same absurdist premise has become, for many, a kind of lifeline.
That said, for as ubiquitous as Taskmaster has seemingly become in these trying times, I suspect that, between it being a British panel show (innit) and only available via the program’s two official YouTube channels, there’s a whole ocean of potential fans still out there. (Yes, free on YouTube)
To that end, I present this Taskmaster primer. Read it; learn it; love it. Let its anti-nihilist spirit wash over you, if you can. If you can’t, at least leave yourself open for the longest bouts of laughter you might have succumbed to in awhile.
Originally commissioned by the UKTV channel Dave in 2015, Taskmaster is the brainchild of comedian/musician Alex Horne, who first brought the concept for what the program would eventually become to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2010. Tall, bearded, gap-toothed, and in possession of an almost tannicly dry sense of humor, Horne serves as both field moderator and studio jester for what has since become a multiple-award winning show.
That Horne is also the evil genius behind the show’s signature tasks, as well as the composer of the program’s clownishly slick theme music, might surprise first-time viewers, as his onscreen role is so obviously subordinate to that of the official Taskmaster, comedian Greg Davies. When it comes to the experience that Taskmaster wants both its viewers and its contestants to have, however, that kind of inversion of expectations is really the point. Think you know the best way to build a snowman without any snow? Or how to conceal a whole pineapple on your person? Think you can buy the best present for the Taskmaster, when given just £20? Unless it has occurred to you to [redacted], you’ll find that, no—you actually don’t.
As for who Horne and Davies bring in to compete, each series’ panel consists of five people—usually comedians, but also the occasional actor, quiz show presenter or Great British Bake-Off host. American audiences who watch literally any other British quiz shows will recognize at least half of the competitors (Josh Widdicombe, Romesh Ranganathan, Katherine Ryan, Nish Kumar, etc.), but people who’ve never even heard of 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown will still recognize panelists like Aisling Bea (Living With Yourself), Asim Chaudry (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) and Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd), as well as Noel Fielding (Great British Bake-Off), Mel Giedroyc (same) and Lolly Adefope (Shrill). In general, the panels are a solid mix of established names (Frank Skinner, Liza Tarbuck, Jo Brand) and up-and-coming talent (James Acaster, Rose Matafeo, Mawaan Rizwan), with a demographic mix that generally skews 3:2 male/female and 4:1 white/not.
If the show has any real weakness, it’s in this latter point—Katherine Ryan was unapologetic in pointing out the unconscious sexism that put her at a significant disadvantage in various live tasks during her series, while similar instances of (honestly much less) unconscious racism in a TSA-themed task in the current series put newcomer Jamali Maddix at a similar, even more infuriating, disadvantage. That a show as otherwise all-around excellent as Taskmaster still has these kinds of flaws is disappointing, but if any show has the will to commit itself to doing better in the future, it’s also one as otherwise all-around excellent as Taskmaster.
You’ve probably picked much of this up by now, but in plain English: Taskmaster is a competition program that asks its panel of comedic competitors to perform a series of pointless tasks over an extended period of time, all with the knowledge that Davies, as the Taskmaster, will eventually hold them each to account for their various decisions, good and bad. Some tasks are silly (“Make this coconut look like a businessman”), others arcane (“Fill an egg cup with tears”), still others so dead simple, the panelists end up certain there must be a trick. (Which is often true.) And the tasks don’t end once their time in the field is done—for every episode they film in the studio (as few as six in Series 1, as many as ten in later series), the panelists are asked to open by bringing in an item for that week’s prize task (“Best Chair,” “Shiniest Object,” “Boldest Belt”), and end by competing head-to-head in a final live task.
Once they’ve gathered in the studio, competitors are given the opportunity to commentate on their performances, after which point the Taskmaster ranks them, generally assigning scores according to how well each person has either executed the task at hand, or explained away their particular brand of failure. Generally, but not always—as the Taskmaster is a whimsical tyrant—it means that the way he hands out points feels closer to chaos than reason. But this, too, is part of the restorative anti-nihilist heart of the show: Nothing matters, so everything matters. That’s life, baby! Or, as essayist Helena Fitzgerald wrote in a recent edition of her Grief Bacon newsletter, that’s “a metaphor both for our current moment and our lives more generally: we are constantly having to complete a series of stupid and absurd tasks that make no sense at all, often within a highly pressurized time limit, and then being graded on those tasks by totally unpredictable criteria that are really just one large man’s whims.”
Look: Everywhere else in life where we’re subject to this absurd formula, the best possible outcome is abject exhaustion. Here, within the surreal vacuity of the Taskmaster’s throne room, that same absurdity can just be soothing. It means nothing! It means everything! Embrace the nonsense!
If we’re talking about when new episodes of Taskmaster air on Channel 4, the answer is every Thursday evening, with each episode uploaded to the show’s second official YouTube channel the following day. (Don’t ask me why there are two official Taskmaster YouTube channels; some things are better left a mystery.)
If we’re talking when new episodes of Taskmaster are filmed, well, the answer to that is: All year! Or rather, throughout the year, whenever the competitors are available to turn up at the Taskmaster house and have Alex put them through their mundanely goofy paces. The show tries to put out two series a year since premiering in 2015, with the occasional holiday or “Champion of Champions” special (Part II of which is due later this year), and this has been the schedule even during the pandemic, which has now gone on long enough that two whole series (plus one New Year’s special) have aired with social distancing measures in place. Not that those have hurt the show much at all—on the contrary, while having to conform to stricter health and safety standards might have been little more than an unhappy hurdle for other competitive reality productions (see: the most recent seasons of American Ninja Warrior and Dancing with the Stars), for Taskmaster, those same hurdles have given Horne and his team the chance to crank the task difficulty level up to eleven.
Of course, the fact that social distancing would only make Taskmaster stronger makes a fair amount of sense—so much great art, after all, thrives under intense constraint. (That said, Series 3 did feature a task predicated on asking its panelists to overcome literal hurdles just to retrieve a bowl of soup from a microwave, so maybe it’s been working under intense constraint all along….)
In the practical sense, it’s filmed first on location at the Taskmaster house, a former groundskeepers cottage in the middle of a golf course in Chiswick, and then second in a studio where the panelists at last get to come together after months of competing individually to be judged on their performances and participate in the final live-task challenges.
In a streaming sense, Series 1-7, 10 and 11 are available in full across the show’s two YouTube channels, while Series 8 is available on CW Seed. Series 9, at least at time of publication, is unavailable outside of the UK. (An especially huge bummer, as it’s the only series to date to feature three women, and just two men. That said, the show’s primary YouTube channel boasts an upload history that would lead one to believe the series’ arrival is imminent.)
I mean, Taskmaster is, at its core, an absurdist show—the only why it has to answer is why not?
Another meta question, and possibly one only you can answer for yourself. But Alex, Greg, and the rest of the Taskmaster team have gone some distance to help you, both in publishing Taskmaster: The Board Game, and in running a “Hometasking” mini-series through their primary YouTube channel early in the pandemic. Interested in making your pointless pandemic tasks even more pointless (and thus, more meaningful)? They’ve got you covered!
As for how new viewers should dive in to their first time watching Taskmaster, I would say that, while you really can’t go wrong just starting from Series 1, the fact that Series 4 boasts a majority of panelists who Americans are likely to recognize makes it a strong contender. Getting invested in how each person tackles the very concept of “tasks” is what makes the show so fun—might as well give yourself every advantage in being able to make that investment stick early on.
In the meantime, I’m about due for a hit of anti-nihilism myself, and just got a notification that the latest Series 11 episode has finally been uploaded. I’ll see you all on the other side.
Taskmaster airs on Thursdays on Channel 4, if you’re in the UK. For the rest of us, it’s available streaming on YouTube.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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