Genuine human cleverness is a rare and beautiful thing. (Certainly, it’s been in short supply of late in the home office/bedroom/quarantine bunker in which I do the vast majority of my A.V. Club work.) There’s a pleasure to watching someone come up with, and then execute, a really excellent idea that’s hard to quantify, beyond thinking of it in the same satisfying terms as seeing the last piece of a puzzle finally click into place. It’s a small miracle, of sorts: Someone had a million options to choose from, and they somehow picked the best. There’s a comfort in that.
Said comfort is roughly half of what’s made British panel show Taskmaster the perfect quarantine series for me of late, as the drab, anxious weeks of recent human existence have dragged their way on. The other half, of course, is cleverness’ dark half: The evil, bastard joy of watching someone think up a plan, deliberately execute it, and then fuck it up so badly that no one involved has any recourse but to collapse into helpless laughter. Taskmaster does that part pretty well, too.
The premise is simple: Five comedians are asked to fulfill a series of ostensibly simple tasks—anything from “Eat the most melon in a minute” to “Move this (fake) boulder as far from here as you can in an hour”—do their best to fulfill the brief, and then congregate in a theater to have host Greg Davies lambast them for what a terrible job they did. Points are meted out, banter is exchanged, and laughter is achieved.
But despite Davies’ cranky charms—and his stated title as “The Taskmaster”—the real heart of the series is his supposed assistant, comedian Alex Horne. Self-effacing, quiet, and devious as a snake, Horne is the actual creator of the series, which originated as an Edinburgh Fringe show before making the move to TV—and to a series of international versions, including a short-lived U.S. version that paired him up with Reggie Watts back in 2018. What Horne and his producers grasped, from the show’s very first episodes, though, was that there’s a joy in watching people think (or not think) their way through bizarre problems, one that transcends the comedy found on so many of its British panel show ilk.. Sometimes, that process results in little more than blind, hilarious panic—as when watching former Great British Baking Show presenter Mel Giedroyc respond to instructions to “camouflage herself” by looking around for seven seconds, then hide herself behind a vase.
Sometimes, though, you see actual brilliance emerge. And that’s when the show reveals itself as a celebration of what the human brain can do when placed under suitable pressure.
For example, take the above task from the show’s second season. It demonstrates the full breadth of where Taskmaster can take the human mind, asking the five participants to place three fully inflated yoga balls on a mat on top of a tall and windy hill. It’s essentially Taskmaster in miniature, pitting blind kickers against bad planners against the powers of genuine lateral thinking. When one participant smartly invites some bystanders into her scheme, it feels like she’s got the task on lock. Then another shows up, reads the instructions very carefully, and calmly saunters his way to the win.
It’s those moments that give Taskmaster such a warm aura in bad times. It’s a celebration of people doing dumb things, yes, but it’s also a celebration of dumb things done astoundingly well. Its recent emergence onto YouTube—one episode from the older seasons is being released per week, allowing for a pleasant and gradual catch-up—has become mandatory bedtime viewing for me, and an excellent way to have something feel right in a thoroughly depressing time. The show is even getting in on the efforts to help stop people from going mad with boredom while staying at home, issuing regular at-home tasks, and then airing some of the best submissions from fans.
And really: Why would you want to lose your mind by letting it go fallow, when you could lose it because two British comedians told you to transform your kitchen into a miniature sporting arena instead?