Sometimes when a creator goes out on a limb with their creative projects they can fail, but Alex Horne’s “Taskmaster” shows that originality and resourcefulness prevail. The concept of the show was initially never meant for the screen. From 2009 to 2010, Horne challenged 20 comedians with monthly tasks and presented their efforts in a live show at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Given the success of the first show, Horne orchestrated a live “Taskmaster II” show the following year. After the success of both live shows, Horne began to work toward getting “Taskmaster” on TV. Thankfully, the British TV channel Dave picked up the show in 2014 and “Taskmaster” has been going strong ever since.
The recurring stars of “Taskmaster” are Horne himself as the Taskmaster’s assistant and comedian Greg Davies as the titular Taskmaster. While Horne designs all the tasks on the show, Davies is portrayed as the leader of the pair. Each series features a different panel of contestants made up of comedians and other British celebrities, such as “The Great British Bake Off” host Noel Fielding, actress Sally Phillips and TV producer Richard Osman.
The series’s motley crews go through three stages during each live show. First, they participate in the episode’s prize task; they are given a superlative such as most confusing, and Davies determines which contestant brought in the item that most aligns with the prompt. The second stage contains three to four tasks that were pre-recorded at the Taskmaster’s house. The final stage of each episode is performing a task in front of a live studio audience. Each task is judged on a point system; first place gets 5 points, second place gets 4 points, and so on. The points are counted to determine the series winner, and the contestant who earns the most points in each episode receives all the items brought in for that episode’s prize task.
Aside from its original format, “Taskmaster” also fosters a social environment rarely seen with reality TV. While U.S. game shows, such as “Survivor,” are focused on competition between participants, “Taskmaster” contestants show camaraderie with each other and with Davies and Horne. Compared to performance-based shows like “America’s Got Talent,” “Taskmaster” contestants are willing to look foolish on the show for the sake of entertainment.
The judging on the show is also distinct; while shows like “Jeopardy” rely on objective facts and precise rules, Horne designs the tasks with loose rules and Davies judges the tasks subjectively. These differences were evident from Series 1, which featured panelists Frank Skinner, Josh Widdicombe, Roisin Conaty, Romesh Ranganathan and Tim Key.
The camaraderie between contestants on “Taskmaster” has one main effect on the viewers’ experience: It makes the audience feel as if they are always watching the tasks among friends and that they themselves are a part of the cast’s friendships. Not only are Davies and Horne clearly close friends, but many of the contestants are friends and have worked together on projects before. It is not uncommon to see multiple “Taskmaster” contestants working together on other shows or podcasts.
Perhaps the most endearing relationship on the show is between the hosts and the panel. The best example of this is in Series 1; Davies and contestant Roisin Conaty are clearly close friends, and this results in Davies reacting to Conaty’s tasks as one would if their friend showed them a funny video. This reduces the pressure in the show because the contestants know that their tasks won’t be closely analyzed, just comedically commented on by a friend.
The contestants’ amiability also encourages a major contributor to the show’s comedy: the panel’s commentary on each other’s performances. Since the contestants are seeing each other’s work for the first time on the show, the audience gets their honest, unfiltered reactions. The panel’s commentary offers the same entertainment as viral “react” videos on YouTube — the viewers have a reaction to empathize with and relate to. Most of the commentary comes during the prize task, as each contestant’s goal is to convince Davies that their object is the best in the category.
One of the fiercest debates in Series 1 took place in Episode 2 as the contestants brought in their most impressive item. Romesh Ranganathan brought a hat from the Arsenal F.C. team that he believed was worn by a member of the team because he caught it after it had been thrown from the team’s bus. The other contestants pointed out that the hat was likely not from a member of the team, which led to Ranganathan bringing complaints against his fellow contenders’ items, particularly Conaty’s giant champagne bottle.
The main selling point of Horne’s vision for “Taskmaster” is the odd tasks that, in addition to the willingness of the contestants, make the show more interesting than most game shows on TV today. While all contestants that have been on the 11 series of the show have been incredibly open and entertaining, Tim Key and Romesh Ranganathan were incredibly dedicated from Episode 1 of Series 1.
The first recorded task on the show was to eat as much watermelon as possible in one minute. In response, both Key and Ranganathan immediately slammed the watermelon against the table and floor and inhaled it at an alarming rate. The two continued to demonstrate their commitment, as they went on to perform the tasks aggressively, quickly and efficiently.
The unusual tasks and every contestant’s commitment make the show interesting because it leads the audience to expect the unexpected. Any task, in combination with each contestant’s unique thought processes, could lead to almost anything happening. When tasked with throwing a tea bag into a mug from the farthest distance, each contestant took a different approach.
Ranganathan put out multiple mugs to raise his chances, Skinner used a box to channel the tea bag into the mug, Conaty dropped the tea bag from off a ladder into the mug, Widdicombe (unsuccessfully) tried to convince Davies that a wheelbarrow could be a mug by drinking tea out of it, and Key constructed a giant funnel to ensure the tea bag would always make it to the mug. Not only are their performances entertaining, but it is also interesting to watch how different people tackle the same task.
“Taskmaster” is also a superior show due to the casual viewing experience it ensures for the audience. This can be partially credited to the totally subjective rulings Davies gives. Since the audience knows that the results of a task will be determined based on whatever criteria Davies and Horne choose, they can watch the show knowing that there won’t be any harrowing moments in the scoring like there would be for complex competitions.
For example, Horne assigned the task to use a GPS tracker to create a picture on a soccer field. Davies decided the best photo based simply on what he liked the most. In a more serious game show, the judging of each art project could become a high-pressure situation. On “Taskmaster,” however, Davies’ choices are simple and quick, reducing both the pressure on the contestants to do well and the stress of the audience.
The subjective nature of the judging also makes the show more interesting; there are very few definite rules for each task, and finding a way around them is usually rewarded. Cleverness is often merited over doing exactly what is expected. And even when Davies and Horne find that a contestant’s cleverness has broken the rules, it is still more interesting than watching five people do a task the same way.
Series 1 contestant —and one of the most inventive panelists to appear on the show — Tim Key exemplifies this concept. When asked to figure out what is in five pies without breaching them, Key had Horne breach the pies for him, earning him first place. Key’s cleverness has also backfired; when asked to make a giant ice block disappear, he just threw it into a nearby river. Key arguing for this strategy provided minutes of pure comedy, even though he got last place because, as Horne argues, while the ice block disappeared from Key’s point of view, the ice block appeared for people downriver.
For people passionate about competition shows but who are looking for a casual viewing experience, “Taskmaster” should be next on their queue. With most of the series available on the “Taskmaster” YouTube channel, it’s easy to access. The loose rules and judging lead to very few harrowing moments, and the camaraderie among the cast makes it feel like you’re watching with friends.
The unexpected approaches to the different tasks and the comedian casts’ commentary on each other’s performances make every moment a hilarious one. Despite its simple format, each “Taskmaster” episode is 45 minutes of pure fun as you watch people succeed wildly or fail hilariously.