This week — in between bouts of overwhelming panic and anxiety, of course — I’ve been watching episodes of the British game show-like series “Taskmaster,” and it’s quickly become my new favorite thing.
I’d started to say that I’m late to the party, but that’s not really accurate. It’s more that I’ve checked into the party several times over the past few years, but it’s never seemed like something I’d be that interested in. There are plenty of clips available on YouTube — and if you ever watch any British game shows like “8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown” or “Would I Lie To You?,” YouTube will recommend them to you — but the clips don’t really get across what makes the show special.
The premise: each series assembles a cast of five comedians, actors, or presenters, from the same set of two dozen or so British celebrities that seem to appear on every single TV production in the UK. Over the course of ten episodes, Taskmaster Greg Davies assigns the contestants a series of tasks that they must carry out, under the supervision of his assistant, Little Alex Horne.1Who is the actual creator of the show and all of its tasks. Each episode, they assemble in a studio to watch a video recap of the tasks, and Davies awards points based on how well they succeeded.
Some example tasks: cheer up a depressive traffic warden within 20 minutes, destroy a cake as beautifully as possible, get into an elevator with a disguise kit and change your appearance as much as possible by the time it reaches the bottom floor, or make the best noise.
It’s a clever idea, but what elevates it to genius is the tone and the presentation. The whole thing has the aesthetic of a surreal spy series, reminiscent of The Avengers or The Prisoner. Most of the tasks are carried out in an odd cottage at an undisclosed location in England. Paintings and other artwork of the Taskmaster hang all over the house, sternly observing everything that happens within.
Tasks are assigned in plain white envelopes, sealed with a special Taskmaster wax seal, the instructions typed by Davies in the opening credits of each episode. The music played during the opening and ending credits2And performed by Alex Horne’s band has the feel of an early 60s spy series. The music played during the interstitials is a creepy few bars relying on a stringed instrument I can’t recognize, which somehow makes me think of John le Carré novel covers.
The tasks themselves are fun, like watching an escape room being played by people who are just naturally funny, even when they’re not being particularly clever. Mercifully, it seems that the contestants are either coached not to try to be deliberately funny, but instead just take the task as straightforward and let the humor come naturally and spontaneously.
Or possibly, the awkward bits of comedians trying to be funny are edited out, because the editing on this series is next-level perfect. Full of dry humor, understanding exactly when to cut to a reaction shot from Alex, understanding exactly the right quotes to include and when. The editing and direction seems to derive as much satisfaction in showing a clever success as it does a hilarious failure.
But the tasks themselves are only part of it, and watching just clips of those would be like watching just the movie segments of Mystery Science Theater 3000. You’d get the idea, but all the details that make the series magic would be lost. So much great stuff happens watching the contestants in the studio reacting to the video of their past selves, sometimes recorded months earlier. And of course, trying to justify themselves to the Taskmaster, who doesn’t hesitate to make judgments that vary from “that was shit, wasn’t it?” to “that was genuinely amazing.” Nobody’s taking it that seriously, but unlike other panel shows, they’re all taking it just seriously enough.
It’s that combination of sincerity and silliness that makes the magic of the show. Funny people taking absurd tasks as if they were absolutely straightforward and serious, and then getting together to laugh at themselves for it afterwards. Some of the clip compilations are pretty good, but if you’re like me and have tried watching before but couldn’t get into it, I recommend digging in to a whole episode.