If there’s one thing I love on this earth, it’s game shows. I’m kind of a connoisseur.
A great game show combines luck, risk-taking and some kind of skill or knowledge. Deal or No Deal was just luck and risk-taking, but they always pretended as if there was all this strategy where none could exist, it was bizarre. Winning Streak is the worst because it doesn’t even test risk-taking, just luck, so it effectively just throws money at people with the only variant being how much. Shows that have the potential to lapse into being just a dry test of skill usually have a time constraint to force the risk-taking element. But my favourites combine genuine difficulty with being a ton of fun to watch. Way too many shows are stupidly dramatic: every time someone gives an answer on Tenable, there’s probably a full thirty seconds of dramatic reaction shots and lights going up the answer board. It tries to be “fun” by having Warwick Davis deliver terrible pun after terrible pun, instead of striving towards a fun tone overall.
My favourite has long been Pointless: its reverse Family Fortunes format that rewards the most obscure correct answer makes it incredibly fun to play along with, whether you know a lot or very little about the category. The banter between its hosts, Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, is charming and makes the tone of the whole thing light and fun, in sharp contrast with the most self-serious quiz shows (Mastermind, mostly). I love Only Connect, the hardest show in the world, both because host Victoria Coren-Mitchell is delightful and because I feel elated if I get an answer right. I am kind of obsessed with Richard Osman’s House of Games, and love following the throughline of each week, rooting for my favourite contestants and waiting with bated breath for the day someone wins all five shows.
But there is one game show that is more fun to watch than basically anything on television, and that’s Taskmaster. Pitched perfectly between a light-hearted “normal” game show and Shooting Stars surrealism, it’s both one of the best game shows I’ve ever seen and such a weird, inventive thing that to even classify it by genre feels wrong. It’s glorious.
Five contestants, usually comedians, compete across each season, performing tasks and getting scored on their attempts by the titular Taskmaster, Greg Davies. His “so servile it’s vile” assistant is Alex Horne, who supervises the tasks on the Taskmaster’s behalf and is not infrequently roped into them. (In reality, the show is devised and written by Horne.)
Each episode opens with the prize task, where the competitors bring in objects that fit a certain theme – “most extraordinary souvenir,” “cutest thing,” “most unusual autograph on the most unusual vegetable” – to be the prizes for winning that episode. Greg, Alex and the competitors then watch all of the competitors each attempt three pre-recorded tasks: Greg awards the person who does the best five points, and the person who does the worst one point. The tasks might be creative, athletic or test lateral thinking, and range from the on-the-face-of-it mundane to overtly bizarre. “Eat as much melon as you can in a minute. Most eaten wins.” “High-five a 55-year-old. Fastest wins.” “Throw a tea bag into a mug. Furthest distance wins.” “Impress this mayor.” “Make this coconut look like a businessman.” Greg’s evaluations are brutal and hilarious; his scores are frequently arbitrary and always final.
And finally there’s the live task, which the competitors have to complete live on-stage: “Make the biggest balloon chain whilst keeping eye contact with the Taskmaster,” “Build the tallest freestanding tower using potato-based products,” “Record the highest total number of steps on your pedometers. You must not touch your blindfold.”
It’s an impeccable kind of anarchy, like clockwork chaos. It’s consistently hilarious in a dozen different ways. There’s proper jokes, from one-liners like Alex binge-watching the news (“I’m up to 1975. Gripping”) to recurring bits like six-foot-eight Greg introducing Alex as “Little Alex Horne” (“I’m not little. I’m six foot two and overweight”). There’s the tasks themselves, and just how badly a competitor can botch them: for the task “spread your clothes as far and wide as possible” Paul Chowdhry just put them around the garden of the Taskmaster house, and then tried to get a model airplane to take off with his sock on it. Plus there’s Greg’s wonderful, withering commentary: he’s frequently very witty, but I’m not sure if anything makes me laugh more than him just saying something is shit.
But some of the funniest stuff to me is the jokes that emerge from the characterisation and world-building. The show never gets bogged down in it, but Taskmaster operates in a fictional universe that purports to be our own: basically kayfabe.
The most obvious fiction is that Greg Davies sets the tasks. He threatens to fire Alex and Alex is constantly grateful for the opportunity to act as his assistant. In one episode, Alex tries to come up with his own task in order to contribute more to the show – it’s guessing whether he has a paperclip in his hand and Greg gets it right every time. But at the end of every episode, the credits roll: “devised and written by Alex Horne”.
But it goes way beyond that: they each play rich, fully rounded characters. It takes a little while for it all to click into place, but Alex is Greg’s devoted manservant: submissive, obedient and adoring. He’s awkward and uncomfortable and scared of women. He’s desperate to impress Greg, who he both wants to be his father and his lover. The Taskmaster is a domineering sadist. He punishes Alex for wrongdoing – making him spend the rest of the episode with one bare foot after Al Murray bribed him during a task, say, or tying him on a leash and yanking him to his seat if he steps out of bounds – but gives occasional praise that Alex delights in. Whenever the Taskmaster puts his hand on Alex’s chair or just moves his hand into Alex’s space, Alex will hold it. When they kiss in season six, Alice Levine says “Finally!”
Over shorter time periods, the competitors develop distinct characters, even if they’re less overtly fictional. Season three’s group sets it out nicely: moneybags Al Murray tries to spend his way through every task; Dave Gorman is an absolute cheat; Paul Chowdhry is a simple, beautiful soul; Rob Beckett and Sarah Pascoe are a brother and sister act. They’re never overdone, but you get a clear sense of who the person is in the context of the show, and it makes it compulsively watchable because you’re more invested. There’s a brilliant, hilarious piece of seam showing in season seven, when Phil Wang writes “Fuck you, James Acaster” on a message he has to deliver for a task. Back in the theatre watching, Acaster is baffled, to which Wang explains that when the show started he thought they would have a rivalry but then he forgot about it.
But what makes Taskmaster so wonderful is how sincerely exciting it is. The tasks are so inventive – I think the only one that is used more than once is “Buy a present for the Taskmaster” – that it’s thrilling to see how different people approach them. Sometimes it’s so open-ended that you could really do anything: tasked with impressing a mayor, Doc Brown sings a couple of songs (reading the words off his phone, I might add) and Richard Osman juggles while reciting a poem he’s written, but Joe Wilkinson buys forty-two Calippos and some cans of lager. Some of them, there’s a clever trick you can figure out to do it, leading to those weird moments of sublime genius where everything about a task clicks into place and you can’t help but giggle in delight. “Keep a basketball on a running machine for as long as possible,” where Hugh Dennis unplugs the treadmill, or “build the highest freestanding bridge to support a potato” where no-one figured out that there were lots of excellent bridge-building items hidden under the table, despite clues hidden all over the room.
But the best tasks are ones that go in ways you could never predict. I would never spoil the task where the competitors have to get the potato in the golf hole without touching the (red) green, but I would comfortably name it as the best sporting moment of the 2010s. Which is why I demand that you watch it immediately:
I’ll be damned if that’s not the most exciting shit you’ve seen in your life. After we’re shown the “clever” way to do it – move the red green with something else! – Joe Wilkinson comes in and, after a fraction of a second’s hesitation, just lobs it straight into the hole. It’s fucking exhilarating. And then! It all comes crashing down. The shock, the devastation. Greg says sometimes the Taskmaster has to crush dreams, and I felt like my dreams were crushed. Joe begging, and then the dangled hope – and then it comes right down the wire, and then it’s snatched away from him. It somehow manages to play the idea that this is very serious and important for laughs and also send me through the absolute wringer more than any serious or important equivalent ever could.
The past twenty years – post-Sopranos and The Wire – have seen TV become more and more valued as a serious, important artform. But alongside it, there’s an incredibly narrow conception of what so-called “prestige television” entails. Great TV is supposedly dark, heavily serialised drama; it’s cinematic or novelistic or, God forbid, a ten-hour movie. (Never mind that many of the shows that are supposed to be the antecedents for this trend were frequently episodic and very funny.) Lots of critics have pushed back against this way of thinking about TV, but the push usually only extends as far as genre shows and sitcoms. If you just read episode recaps and series reviews without ever actually watching any television, you would think there was no such thing as gardening shows, or cooking shows, or children’s TV outside of the privileged few enjoyed by Extremely Online adults. You’d think there was no such thing as game shows.
But these genres are places where there can be a wealth of creativity, innovation and weirdness, in ways that aren’t cinematic or novelistic or anything like a ten-hour movie. Taskmaster is just such a show. It might have started as a stage show in Edinburgh, but the format it developed on television could only ever be done on television, right down to Greg’s absurdly delightful segues to the ad break. It feels, to me, bursting with joy at all that television has the capacity to be.