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Greg Davies and Alex Horne share a laugh in their comically-sized throne chairs next to a golden statue of Davies’ head on the set of Taskmaster. Image: Channel 4

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5 reasons (and the 5 best seasons) to love the wickedly hilarious UK panel show Taskmaster

It’s the gift from across the pond that keeps on giving

It’s taken a few years of me recommending it nonstop, but it finally seems like Taskmaster is catching on in America (you’re welcome). Of course, I can’t take total credit for the concerted effort by the show (and its devoted fans) to make itself known stateside, but I’d like to think that my endless evangelism has had at least a little bit to do with it.

Taskmaster is a U.K. reality show whose genre lands somewhere between quiz show and panel show. Each season, a set of five comedians and performers are filmed doing a variety of deranged tasks, independently or as small teams, and then those tasks are broadcast before the contestants, a live audience, and the Taskmaster himself, comedian Greg Davies, who judges them and doles out points accordingly — plus his assistant, Alex Horne, who is really the mastermind behind the whole franchise as the show’s creator, designing all of the fiendish tasks and often assisting (or refusing to assist) the contestants in their efforts to complete them.

The revolving cast of contestants is one of the main attractions, of course, but the heart and soul of Taskmaster is the dynamic between Davies and Horne. Davies, a 6-foot-8 mountain of a man, always calls his 6-foot-2 assistant “Little Alex Horne,” and the surreal banter between the two of them never fails to get a reaction out of the lineup of contestants. The atmosphere the two well-practiced hosts create is the perfect petri dish for improvised hilarity on the part of the contestants — usually four comedians and one other wildcard performer like an actor or a television host, all carefully selected for maximum chaotic chemistry. After everyone watches the previously recorded tasks together, each episode culminates in a task performed live in the studio for the pleasure of the Taskmaster, which usually results in some kind of absurd physical mishap.

See, it sounds wacky when written out like that, but trust me, it absolutely works. Everyone I’ve successfully convinced to watch it over the years has quickly fallen in love. There’s nothing you can compare it to, and no way to really describe it better — just give it a shot and start watching. Most of the seasons are available on the show’s official YouTube channel, and the ones that aren’t are available via the official international Taskmaster streaming service. (There are also a bunch of international versions of the show, many of which are very good — just don’t bother with the American one, which was a complete failure to launch.)

So here are five of my favorite seasons of Taskmaster, and reasons why they make it the best show ever.

1. It’s perfect for marathon viewing (series 5)

Bob Mortimer looks puzzled while sitting in front of a coconut in an egg cup. He’s reading from a white piece of paper, and a clementine is next to him, in Taskmaster Series 5. Image: Channel 4

While there are plenty of clips available on YouTube, I would recommend anyone just starting out in their Taskmaster journey to pick one season (aka series) to start with, and watch all the way through. The arc of each contestant’s journey from episode to episode, and even within each episode, is vital to understanding the Taskmaster aesthetic as a whole.

It’s possible to start with any series, as they’re all fairly self-contained. But a lot of the now-canon Taskmaster lore was built up slowly over the first six or so series, so starting with an earlier one is probably a good idea.

Series 5 features Bob Mortimer, whose delightfully unhinged non sequiturs make him a centerpiece on the also hilarious U.K. panel show Would I Lie To You?, and Aisling Bea, creator and star of This Way Up, but every contestant in this series is a complete delight, making it a great introduction to the format for any new viewer.

Mark Watson’s legendary solo task, involving sending a series of cheeky texts to Davies, is a perfect example of a Taskmaster wildcard from the mind of Horne that leaves the contestant deeply ashamed and the audience in stitches at their comedic misfortune. (See also: series 1’s bean task for Josh Widdicombe.)

But really, it’s the moment that The Guardian ranked the best Taskmaster task of all time that makes series 5 the perfect place to start. The contestants are given the mission to write a song about a stranger they just met, whose name is Rosalind. And the results are legendary.

2. It’s perfectly playful (series 4)

Lolly Adefope, Noel Fielding, and Jo Lycett smile together while reading a task above a red trash can outside the Taskmaster house. Adefope wears a bright red coat, Fielding wears a skeleton costume, and Lycett wears a big fur coat. Image: Channel 4

One thing we as adults don’t do very often is just… play. Sure — video games, board games, all sorts of structured, fun leisure — but when’s the last time you just let yourself loose on a pile of blocks or a box of crayons?

Taskmaster is the perfect show for getting back into the sort of playful mindset that can provide freedom and enjoyment in all areas of life. Once you’ve become a true Task-head, you’ll find that you can turn even the most inconvenient and uncomfortable drudgery into a fulfilling activity by picturing Alex standing close by with his clipboard, counting down the time.

Series 4’s cast most notably includes Noel Fielding, who will be familiar to American audiences from The Great British Bake Off — and the same goes for Mel Giedroyc, who overflows with playful delight as she constructs a towering “Japanese pagoda” of candy and chocolate, only to be faced (like a misbehaving child in a Roald Dahl novel) with the prospect of having to eat as much of it as she can in the next task.

Mel also shines in partnership with her team member Hugh Dennis. When he has to drive her around in a garbage bin while blindfolded, and neither of them are allowed to speak English, their adequate-French parlay is incredibly charming. This is a great series to prove to any viewer that adults can, and in fact should, play too.

3. It encourages lateral thinking (series 12)

Victoria Coren Mitchell and Guz Khan look in confusion at an array of rubber ducks on strings in the Taskmaster studio. Image: Channel 4

Watching Taskmaster changes the way you think. Seriously! Because of the sneaky way that hints are doled out, you’ll never see the undersides of tables the same way again.

Series 12 is great for fans of puzzles and trickery, especially because it features none other than Victoria Coren Mitchell, who the truly puzzlebrained might know from “fiendishly difficult” U.K. quiz show Only Connect. It’s inspiring to watch her speed through a codebreaking task, and incredibly endearing to watch her reveal that she’s going to have to learn how to ride a bike for the first time on screen in order to complete a different task. Her skills are contrasted with the frustration of other contestants, like Morgana Robinson, whose aptitude at impressions makes even her failures entertaining.

The importance of keeping your brain with you at all times is emphasized by the contestants’ performance in this series, especially in a delightfully twisty task that involved shredding the instructions a minute after they had read them. The clever shortcuts and cheat codes to Taskmaster tasks — which are frequently revealed to taskers only after most or all of them completely missed them — are a real test to the couch contestants, keeping you on your toes wondering, Would I have thought of that?

4. It gives you new favorites (series 11)

Mike Wozniak sits in the Taskmaster studio while wearing a ridiculous tall red fluffy hat. Image: Channel 4

The British comedy industry works a little differently than the American one. First of all, it’s smaller and less regional, meaning once you hit a certain level of fame, you end up on the same panel shows and festival circuits as everyone else. Taskmaster serves as a showcase for the best and brightest of British and Irish (and occasionally Canadian, Australian, or even American) comedy, introducing viewers from across the pond to talents that will lead them to all sorts of amazing new stuff to watch and listen to.

For example, series 11 had the unfortunate luck to have its studio segments filmed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with spaced seating and without a live audience. But because of its tremendously good cast, it manages to stand out as one of the best of the bunch. It introduced me to the brilliant Australian comedian Sarah Kendall and the bonkers, fence-jumping Brit Mike Wozniak, who only Bob Mortimer can rival for iconic catchphrases and one-liners that you’ll be repeating forever. (You’ll never hear the word “casserole” without laughing again.)

Thanks to her approach to tasks that had everyone remarking that she should become a children’s show host, you’ll definitely want to follow Charlotte Ritchie to her other work in Ghosts and Feel Good. And Jamali Maddix’s stand-up and Mike Wozniak’s array of podcasts will be up next after that!

5. It’s a love story (series 7)

Greg Davies and Alex Horne share a tender moment on the Taskmaster stage, as Davies holds Horne’s hand up to his face, like for a kiss. Image: Channel 4

How best to describe the relationship between the Taskmaster and his assistant? Well, it’s a tricky question. In the world-building of the show, told through the introductory monologues and host segments that surround each commercial break, Greg is the dominant, controlling Taskmaster who lords it over his cowering assistant and forces him to do all sorts of humiliating things, like cook and clean for him. All throughout the show, their on-screen dynamic only deepens into an emotional and physical one that’s very hard to describe. Rarely does an episode go by without the two of them holding hands or grabbing hold of each other in some way! And of course, behind the scenes, Alex is the real mastermind, and Greg is just the medium through which his dastardly tasks get presented.

After you’ve gotten your first taste of the Taskmaster and his assistant, and are interested in seeing how far these two could possibly take it, I recommend series 7. Not only is it probably my favorite series in terms of contestant dynamics, with the simmering anger of James Acaster competing with the exuberant bounce of Jessica Knappett, but it’s a truly great showcase for Greg and Alex as well.

Greg gets to go full headmaster on Acaster, reprimanding him like a naughty student when he yells an insult, and Alex plays up his acquiescence in the hands of Rhod Gilbert, who uses him like an inanimate tool in his tasks and ends up stripping him naked multiple times. Rhod doesn’t spare Greg either — a running joke for the prize tasks that start off each episode involves a really unflattering picture of Greg and only gets funnier throughout the series.

While some of the wildest Greg and Alex moments aren’t in this series (I mean, they kiss in series 6, seriously), it’s a series in which they truly feel settled into their iconic dynamic, which serves as an effective backdrop and grounding mechanism for the contestants to shine their brightest.

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