We happened to watch a single episode of Taskmaster over Christmas at my parents and I had been pleasantly surprised by the content. In the last couple of years it's become clear that the show had tapped into something, with posters and billboards all over London, and even American bloggers and podcasters that I follow beginning to talk about it, but we had no way to watch it and the central premise seemed a bit boring.
I was definitely wrong. I'd thought it was going to be some banal, grown-up version of Saturday morning kids shows like Dick & Dom In Da Bungalow, where celebrities had to perform uncomfortable or somehow gross acts on camera. I mean, I really think Greg Davies would be a good hosting choice for a show like that, so it all fit together.
And yet, whilst Taskmaster definitely shares some of that DNA, it goes about things a lot more interestingly than I had predicted. For starters, the guests are all comedians (mainly literal stand-ups, though generally "funny" TV personalities seem to be fair game as well) and of quite a high calibre. Combine that with the really bizarre (yet positive) choice to have the same five guests on every episode of a season, and it neatly avoids the Never Mind the Buzzcocks trap of wildly varying quality in terms of on-screen banter. Plus, you get at least a little invested in the overall competition, though this is not stressed too much (possibly thankfully).
Season two "starred" Richard Osman, Doc Brown, the wonderfully dry Katherine Ryan, Joe Wilkinson (who predictably came last 😂), and – an absolute personal favourite – Jon Richardson. The combination was well balanced between the surreal, the sarcastic, and the cerebral, and I'd say each comedian had at least one genuinely brilliant moment each episode.
But where the show really surprised me was in the challenges. These were varied, fairly novel, and surprisingly inventive. At their best, they reward out-of-the-box thinking and clever use of wordplay to open up loopholes, but Davies plays a fair Taskmaster that will punish those that push the rules too far, whilst permitting enough to keep the show entertaining. At their worst, they do veer a little close to Dick & Dom territory, and that does lead me to my one main criticism: episodes are a little uneven. Some are treasure troves of interesting ideas and clever comedy, whilst others just feel a little by-the-numbers. To their credit, co-hosts Davies and Alex Horne do a good job of keeping the pace going and providing keystone comedy, but the nature of the show is that some tasks likely work better on paper than reality.
Still, it had us laughing out loud many times over, from Joe's "impressive" number of Calippo ice lollies, to Jon's surprisingly inventive pineapple smuggling or deeply dark children's nursery song, Doc's bridge blindness, Katherine's beautiful yet useless potato support, or Richard's consistent rule-bending. I hope there's more focus on the malleable rules and task wording moving forward, but at the core there's something quite unique and fresh about Taskmaster and all worries are fully dispelled.