Every single day in January and February there was a tweet going around like “is it just me or is everyone really hitting a wall right now?” Each one of these tweets was hugely popular, because everyone was always hitting a wall all the time. (After a few months of this, culture writer Louis Peitzman finally did the meta-commentary: “Every day I see 10 different tweets that say ‘does anyone else feel like they're hitting a wall with the pandemic, or is it just me?’ which indicates we are all struggling and also not reading each other's tweets.”) I did not engage with these tweets, because I didn’t want to tell people that I specifically was not especially hitting a wall. I was, for a period, doing relatively fine, because every day after work I simply went into intellectual suspended animation and watched episode after episode after episode of Taskmaster.
My friend Molly turned me on to Taskmaster at the beginning of 2020, back when Justin and I were still going to work and then coming home and watching an episode together as a treat. (Molly is a cool tough person who is cooler and tougher than me in all respects except that we’re both huge dorks for British panel shows.) Then my grandfather died in February, and the pandemic came down, and the show went from a diversion to a lifeline. This timing made me something of a Taskmaster Cassandra—more than one person has asked me recently “why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?” and the answer is always “I did but you still thought you could focus on watching something ‘good’ like Succession or whatever.” I was an early adopter of Simply Cannot. But now none of us have any remaining brain function, and a surprising number of people are starting to realize that what they need most in the world is Odyssey of the Mind but with British comedians and goofy challenges that make no sense but feel like life or death because they have arbitrary, often very tight time limits and are imposed by a scornful giant (Greg Davies) and his deadpan assistant (Alex Horne). You can’t go to a restaurant, you can’t go on vacation, you can’t see your friends or family, but you can watch some very funny people with accents try to cheer up a traffic warden, or make a portrait of a celebrity out of toilet paper, or conceal an entire pineapple somewhere on their body.
There is, as my friend Helena pointed out in a recent newsletter, almost certainly a real essay to be written about watching a show built around pointless yet overly-freighted tasks during the most pointless yet overly-freighted era in most of our lives. I am not going to write that essay, partly because I did eventually start hitting a wall for acute non-pandemic reasons and need a break this week, but mostly because my brain is too smooth from rewatching a bunch of Taskmaster in a row. Bingeing this show feels very similar to taking a long afternoon nap and having wonderful dreams: nothing you’re seeing makes sense, but it doesn’t matter, and you laugh really hard, and when you surface the earlier parts of the day feel very blunted and distant. (I am not a big weed person but I have said more than once that what I’m getting from Taskmaster is what I suspect most people get from weed.) This is not because it’s mindless entertainment, exactly; for a very stupid show it’s actually extremely smart, rewarding quick planning, levelheadedness, lateral thinking, and wit. But it also needs nothing from you; it will take whatever amount of intellect you bring. When Justin and I used to watch it together and both our brains kinda worked, we would sometimes talk about how we might have approached a task, or whether we thought a judgment was fair. Now I just smile goofily at my laptop and let my whole head go numb. This is the beauty of Taskmaster, really: so much is asked, so much is required, so much is demanded, but none of it from you.
Anyway, part of being Taskmaster Cassandra is that a number of people have asked me where they should start, so here’s my overly detailed answer. Rankings are from worst to best, roughly, although a lot of them are, as Greg would say, too close to separate (and of course “worst” still means “quite good”). You can find many of these on YouTube, and if you can’t find them on YouTube I bet you can still find them, I believe in you. More seasoned fans will almost certainly disagree with me but I don’t care, in this scenario I am the scornful giant and I assign the points.
Part of what I love about Johnny Vegas is that he has an edge of sadness no matter how funny he’s being, but it’s pushed to the max here. Johnny Vegas on Taskmaster has the same energy as a picture of a cat in a Halloween costume with the Instagram caption “he hate it.” I don’t mean to imply that he’s a bad sport—far from it. He just always seems like he’s about to burst into tears. By contrast, Daisy May Cooper always seems like she’s about to burst into celebratory belches. Both of these things are great, no notes. This season I also love Mawaan Rizwan’s perfect manicures and general whole deal, and the fact that Katherine Parkinson is exactly her character from The IT Crowd (Richard Ayoade go on Taskmaster challenge) and also mentions her husband so many times that I was forced to google and find out that he’s Ray Purchase from Toast of London (Matt Berry go on Taskmaster challenge). Again, good work all around. The reason this season is at the bottom is simply that approximately half of it was filmed under Covid restrictions, including all the studio segments, and you can never quite stop noticing—especially since one team’s team tasks were recorded before restrictions and one after, making the differences stark. They honestly do a masterful job of coming up with tasks that can be done at a distance, outdoors or in a cavernous space—I especially admired, though did not enjoy, a socially distanced team update on series one’s “eat the most watermelon” task, which didn’t deserve a repeat but got one anyway. Everybody involved in this tried their best. But there’s just a running murmur of “hey, remember how everything sucks?” under this one and thus it cannot be my fave.
That said, Alex’s list of noises Johnny made during one task is one of the best poems I’ve ever read: “‘I am not a crook,’ then monkey noises, sex noises, computer noises, then nose noises, then he shouted, ‘Get your bodily thing’ a few times, we think; a sort of boat noise, then he said, ‘I will, I will, I will,’ then ‘Chirp, chirp, chirp,’ then some raspberries, ‘Yah,’ ‘Moo,’ a fax machine, jazz music, a car, a wasp, a ghost, sneezing hamster and then pain.”
Taskmaster is often weirdly horny, much to Alex’s chagrin, but this is the horniest. Everything that comes out of Shirley Ballas’s mouth is a double entendre. How does she do it? Also Rylan Clark-Neal has a picture of Greg on his dick the whole time so, you know. It’s down here for the same Covid reasons (plus Greg saying “run through some woodland with your loved ones before the oncoming environmental apocalypse,” come on man that’s not what I’m here for) and also for wasting Nicola Coughlan on a one-off.
This series is pretty forgettable overall which is probably why I forgot how much I hate Iain Stirling. He’s distilled essence of overconfident mediocre white man and it nearly ruins the season—because of course it’s not enough for him to simply be undeservedly self-assured about the tasks, he also has to argue and correct and bluster and bully and complain. He has a moment of being slightly chagrined by how awful he is a few episodes in but NOT CHAGRINED ENOUGH. Lou Sanders is smart and charming and deserved better than this series, and Joe Thomas is exactly Roast Beef from Achewood and also, I’ve just thought of this, maybe my choice to play Arthur in my fantasy-cast Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? It was previously Alex, actually, but unfortunately one thing that happens when you get middle-aged is that everyone you like becomes too old for the roles you want to put them in, so I am still trying to recast it with people with longer shelf lives. Joe is only five years younger than Alex but he looks like a baby. Anyway, none of this matters because the series is tarnished by how much Iain sucks. He sucks so much that Greg also visibly hates him, which is sort of fascinating to watch because Greg contractually puts on the garb of a contemptuous tyrant in every episode but seems well-disposed towards people generally. You will hear later on about my enmity with Rhod Gilbert but Greg loves Rhod. Actually now that I’ve rewatched season 8 I love Rhod too. One of the first things I said after being reunited with Iain was “Rhod is no longer my main enemy.” Go fuck yourself, Iain.
Update: I complained about Iain on Twitter and he apologized. I believe the apology is sincere but also he WOULD vanity name-search, wouldn’t he. But okay fine this one was at the bottom but I’m moving it above the Covid ones, for Lou and Joe’s sake as much as anything.
This one is fine! It’s fine. No real standout personalities for me, though I appreciated Al Murray’s commitment to his giant novelty gong. Two of the guys look like the same guy on different diets. I like Rob Beckett when he’s on QI but he has the unique distinction of being the only person I was already familiar with when I started watching Taskmaster whom I did not like appreciably more afterwards. (Oh except Rhod Gilbert who I liked less, but we’ll get there.) Paul Chowdhry’s deadpan delivery is not suited to this show and it made it seem like he was uncomfortable which made me uncomfortable. I just want people to be having a nice time, okay?
The Champion of Champions special is only two episodes, so it’s hard to get deeply invested, but it includes Noel Fielding so it’s good. Many of the tasks are a little phoned in but there’s one really great one per episode. I heard they’re doing another one of these but I won’t like the contestants as much so I won’t watch it. I’m kidding, I’m going to watch it obviously.
Rose Matafeo and her beautiful arms are in my top three Taskmaster crushes, beating out her ex-boyfriend James Acaster (even though Helena thinks he looks like my husband and I kinda see it), and Jo Brand is exactly who I want to be when I grow up. So why don’t I like this season more? There’s nothing really wrong with it, and it contains some all-timers—I think sliding the drinks across the bar is probably my favorite live task ever purely because of how much fun everyone has, Jo’s “serenade yourself” rap might get you fired from Smith College but it would be worth it, and I think about Jo’s solution to the egg timer task all the time. Maybe I just like Jo. I mean, I do like Jo! I like everyone else too but eh. Is it because Ed Gamble looks suspiciously Aryan and I’m constantly waiting for him to do or say something horrible even though he never does? Is it that Greg and Alex are leaning ever harder into their weird D/s relationship and at some point you want the sub subtext to stay sub-textual? Am I just holding a grudge against David Baddiel for telling a weird kinda slimy story on Would I Lie to You one time? It’s definitely not that I’ve been watching Taskmaster nonstop for weeks, because I just rewatched the soap opera “Feelings” from series 7 yet again and I loved it and everyone involved even more than last time. Actually, it’s probably just that a lot of the tasks feel unusually baroque, like the show figured out that the contestants were always trying to outsmart the tasks and started trying to outsmart them outsmarting them. Anyway, if you wind up starting here you will still like Taskmaster, it’s just in the middle of the pack.
TV recommendations often come with caveats about how they’re slow off the starting block—you can just skip the first season, give it until season two before you give up, it takes a while to hit its stride, find its voice, work out the kinks. Taskmaster, by contrast, seems to have sprung fully-formed from the brain of Zeus (played for the first and last time ever by Alex Horne). It’s not that the show is entirely without rough edges; at one point, an episode ends in a tie and a baffled Greg admits that he genuinely has no idea what happens next. (The way Greg Davies says “genuinely” is the most genuine of all ways to say “genuinely.”) Greg also hasn’t fully settled into his tyrant role, and occasionally asks Alex for his opinion, which Alex gently rebuffs. But many of the tasks are immediately weird, awkward, and perfect: “paint a picture of a horse while riding a horse” may sum up the whole Taskmaster ethos, and you get that in the first episode. Several ongoing Taskmaster themes—signature tracksuits, that one Swedish guy, making Alex eat things, tasks only one person had to do—are already in full bloom here, as if we were midway through a much more seasoned show. Caveats: I feel like there are slightly more gross-out food scenes than usual (“eat the most watermelon” may be hard on emetophobes, one of the ingredients for “cook a meal using all the letters of the alphabet” is not meant for humans, and the less said about toothpaste pie the better). Also, I know Romesh Ranganathan’s whole shtick is that he’s angry, but sometimes it seems like he’s actually angry and that makes me anxious. I want people to feel silly that they didn’t realize they could use a box and are getting ribbed for it, not hard done by! I hope Romesh had a good time.
This was the first season of Taskmaster I ever watched, I think because it was the first one available on YouTube in its entirety, and it’s a solid place to start. It’s still early days so there’s a very slight but appealing roughness to it, or maybe more accurately a lack of slickness. Great range of contestants, in personality and approach and also height (Richard Osman is 6’7”, almost as tall as Greg; Jon Richardson is 5’8” according to the internet which I think might be rounding him up a bit. Greg started the bit where he calls the 6’2” Alex “little Alex Horne” after this season, perhaps because he didn’t have Jon Richardson to kick around anymore). One of my favorite categories of Taskmaster moment is when a contestant minutely reinterprets the task in order to do something much easier that probably wasn’t intended, and in this series they TWICE have to call in Susie Dent, the dictionary expert from Countdown—once to ask whether a contestant’s interpretation was linguistically fair, once to ask whether a task was. A pedant’s delight! Great season for pedants all around, actually (keep an eye out for Richard re-punctuating a live task to head off an objection). This season also includes the greatest moment of triumph and the biggest tragedy of the show period, and they happen at nearly the same time. There’s an interesting bit of trivia about Doc Brown but I don’t want to spoil it, look it up after an episode or two, it’s under “early life” on Wikipedia.
To me, the contestants in this series don’t gel as a group as much as other top ranking seasons, but I like most of them a lot individually. Alice Levine absolutely could not be cuter, and it’s all the more endearing that she wears the same pair of shoes on stage in almost every episode. They’re good shoes! Tim Vine is, to quote Asim Chaudhry, a really nice man who’s fucking weird. Asim himself is just a chill guy you’re happy to spend ten episodes with—this is the first series where Taskmaster lasts ten episodes, which I feel is its natural length. Liza Tarbuck reminds me of my friend Helen, both physically (she’s 20 years older but looks like Helen in 20 years) and in terms of broad, overwhelming competence. It’s a level of competence that’s frankly counterproductive for Taskmaster, which depends on people flailing entertainingly, but I enjoy the Helen energy, and I think people who don’t know Helen will enjoy it too. (Actually, “succeeds unexpectedly” is my second favorite Taskmaster phenomenon after “flails entertainingly” and it’s a close second—it’s just that with Liza what you get is more “succeeds not unexpectedly.”) She seems no-nonsense but fortunately she’s quite a lot of nonsense. Russell Howard gets on my nerves but he’s good at the game, by which I mean not that he’s good at the individual tasks but that he really goes for it. I find the tasks a little lackluster in this series for the most part, but I’m not sure I can blame the writers, because Alex does a bit in episode 7 that made me laugh so hard I started crying, not like tears coming from my eyes but like full on sobs, I think my body got confused and thought I was having an anxiety attack or maybe I was just scared I was going to die. I think this is the only series where Alex and Greg wear matching socks every episode which I enjoy. Just a little bit of flair. It’s also the only series where they kiss, if that’s the sort of thing you’re after.
I actually bounced off this one the first time I watched and had to come back to it, at which point I was forced to admit that yes, everyone is right, it’s one of the best. The problem I had at first was maybe 20% “James Acaster’s whole gimmick is that he’s a whiny little brat, and yes okay he’s very very funny at it but still,” and 80% “Rhod Gilbert is being very rude to Greg all the time, bordering on mean, and he also thinks he’s much much cleverer in his task approaches than he is, just do them instead of trying to outsmart all of them RHODRI.” I like both of these guys but I just wanted them to be better sports! Rhod especially seemed to approach the whole thing with an edge of cruelty to both Alex and Greg that didn’t sit right with me. (Only Greg is supposed to be cruel to Alex.) Roisin Conaty, in series 1, also occasionally took advantage of her long friendship with Greg to either challenge his authority or make fun of him, but “the rules don’t apply to me because we’re buddies” just hits different coming out of a 50-year-old man. Once I decided to actively think of Rhod as a ruder version of Roisin, who I love, I made peace with it, and I do have to give him credit for bringing that boudoir photo of Greg to every show. (To quote Helena, “everyone I know who watches Taskmaster wants to bang Greg Davies and we are all miserable about this.”) Anyway the thing of it is, though, that it’s just all really, really, really funny. God damn James Acaster is a funny man/tall little boy! Also, Jessica Knappett and Phil Wang are both so charming that it more than makes up for my light enmity with Rhod, who does need to get over himself but at least he’s not Iain Stirling.
Bob Mortimer is almost TOO effortlessly weird to be an ideal Taskmaster contestant. It’s most entertaining when people think outside the box, and Bob has simply never even seen the box. He and the box are not in the same room. On the flip side, Sally Phillips seems like she would be too dignified for this show, but fortunately, she turns out to have deep reserves of goofball ideas—and, a la Liza Tarbuck, the unwavering competence to turn them into goofball reality. There’s some real pathos in this one, plus a sweet little allyship between perpetual underdogs Mark Watson and Nish Kumar, which balances the fact that nobody can quite emotionally connect with Sally the uncomfortably sexy mom and Bob the complete alien. The reason I’ve mentioned everyone except Aisling Bea is not because she’s the worst member of this series but because she’s the best: a little weird but not too weird, a little hapless but not too hapless, a little competent but not too competent, she ties the room together. The tasks aren’t my favorites and yet the creative output from this series (Bob’s flip book video, Nish’s coconut businessman, “Rosalind is a fucking nightmare”) ranks with the best ever seen on Taskmaster. In short, to borrow an image from an earlier season, this series is like an exotic sandwich created under ludicrous time pressure on the orders of a mammoth autocrat: all the individual elements are a little strange but you can’t deny that it works.
This, to me, is the Platonic ideal of Taskmaster. Every contestant is extremely funny, extremely game, absolutely cuckoo bananas (at one point literally, I will say no more), and just having the best time. Mel Giedroyc, in particular, simply cannot get enough of every single thing and person and assignment and prop that comes into her orbit. You love some of these people already; you will, I guarantee, love them more by the end. I mean that’s true for every series—I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard someone say a version of “every single Taskmaster contestant is my BFF and my boyfriend and my beloved child”—but it’s somehow especially true here. Personally I would die for Lolly Adefope!!! The tasks are great—the ringtone dances! The exotic sandwiches! Oh my god the Taskmaster: The Movie trailers!—but the tasks are also, in some ways, beside the point; the banter is the star. One of my favorite things that happens on Taskmaster is when a contestant is passionately explaining why they are getting fucked and it’s not fair and Greg is yelling back at them and suddenly everyone is laughing because everyone involved is just so funny, nobody was really mad in the first place, it was just a chance to say some funny things. “You thought someone would be angry but they aren’t” is a very specific emotion that doesn’t get enough credit, and nobody snaps from indignation into giggles like Noel Fielding. Series 4 represents the energy with which I hope we can all approach our stupid little tasks: among friends, in good spirits, not really mad but actually laughing, wearing a skeleton onesie and making the longest continuous noise.