You HAVE To Watch This: Taskmaster – New Zealand
Here we have two You HAVE To Watch This for the price of one.
What Is (Are?) Taskmaster(s)?
Taskmaster is a comedic game show in which five actors (usually comedians) compete to impress the Taskmaster (Greg Davies in the original) by participating in absurd and questionably defined competitions set up by Davies’ subordinate, Alex Horne (the show’s creator). Each episode includes three prerecorded tasks bookended by two live tasks, with the Taskmaster judging the performances on a scale from 1 to 5.
The humor comes from a combination of how the contestants react to the tasks (like having 1 minute to eat as much of an uncut watermelon as possible, and seeing some contestants immediately smash the watermelon and start eating its insides like a Neanderthal, then seeing a contestant spend her whole minute looking for a spoon), the situational irony of contestants having no idea how poorly they preformed, and the witty banter between Davies, Horne, and the contestants.
As the season progresses, you get to know the contestants better, and the familiarity and context adds to the humour.
Is It Sooooo Good?
It is sooooo British. Balancing dry wit with frenetic energy, and a lot of embarrassment. Taskmaster might be the closest the world has come to a new Monty Python, with the added benefit of a new cast refreshing the act and changing the dynamic every season.
Dungeons & Dragons Meets Escape Rooms
The show reminds me of two of my favourite passtimes: Roleplaying games and Escape Rooms.
The diabolical tasks combined with a strict adherence to the rules reminds me of running a roleplaying game. In a tabletop RPG, the Game Master (or Dungeon Master, Referee, Storyteller, take your pick) orchestrates scenarios that are meant to challenge, basically, Conan, Merlin, Robin Hood, and “Macho Man” Randy Savage. A lot of being a GM, however, is sitting and watching your players take the scenarios you set up and bounce between being clever and clueless. As much fun as it is to watch them flail, you get invested in their efforts and genuinely excited when they succeed.
Escape rooms take that idea and drop you and your friends into the puzzle. Sometimes you ride a series of solutions and advance at an exhilarating pace. Other times, you stare at a disconnected series of letters that you know are part of a solution, but you don’t even know what the question is.
Finishing an episode of Taskmaster usually leaves me with one of three urges:
1. I need to run an RPG adventure full of puzzles;
2. We should book an Escape Room;
3. I can’t wait to watch the next episode!
The secret weapon of the series is Alex Horne. Which is weird to say, since he’s the show’s creator and on screen the majority of the time. Still, Horne meekly sitting in the shadow of Greg Davies -who is 6’8″ with a personality as his body, and who responds to Taskmaster- at first you take it at face value that he’s the secondary host.
The more you watch Alex Horne, the more impressive he becomes. He writes and runs the tasks, putting on a deadpan cluelessness when the players have follow-up questions to the tasks that are underdefined as often as they are over defined. His band performs the theme song. He outwits the comedian contestants and the host on a regular basis, all while maintaining an underdog relatability. Which is, frankly, arrogant of me to relate to someone as talented as Alex Horne.
The explanation of each task fits on cue card, and yet features so much depth and forethought. In one of my favourite examples, the contestants stood in a black light room and had to paint a rainbow. Reflective tape provided the only light. They couldn’t see their progress or the colours of the paints. However, the paints were scented, and these scents hinted at the colours.
Alex played the videos of four contestants struggling to paint in the dark. Then he played the video of a contestant who noticed tape that glows in dark light around the light switch. He turned on the light -not against the rules- and painted with full view of paints and canvas.
Another task featured a scale model of a city stacked with odd items. Raw spaghetti, gum, a deck of cards, etc. The task: Build the tallest bridge. If they looked under the table, they would find blanks of wood labeled Bridge Building Kit. A boat on the table displayed its name “Look Under The Table” in Latin. A sign hanging over the entrance said “Look Under The Table”. A red button built into the table lit up an obscured “Look Under The Table” sign. They all pressed the button. No one saw the sign.
None of them looked under the table.
Not all tasks trick the contestants. Like “Get To Know This Swede.” Or “Write and Perform a Song About Rosalind” (a woman they just met). Others test them physically, like a race to toss a potato into a hole from 10 feet away. Most have a problem solving component, like getting an unbroken egg onto a pole. The variety of tasks, the skills they test, and how well the contestants handle stress, keeps them fresh.
What Is New Zealand?
The Canada to Australia’s USA.
What Is Taskmaster: New Zealand?
Taskmaster’s success lead to international licensing of the concept. An American version failed spectacularly. Since that was my first taste of a Taskmaster reimagining, I assumed Taskmaster only worked with the British tone and setting. However, I quickly heard word that I HAVE to watch the New Zealand version.
Is It Sooooo Good?
It is. And it shows how important an Alex Horne type is to the format. The new Taskmaster, Jeremy Wells, is no Greg Davies. Now, he does have presence. But where there is method to Davies’ madness Wells’ picks feel more arbitrary. Similarly, Davies is mean but funny, and strict but fair, while Wells doesn’t explain himself as often or as well.
But even with an only O.K. Taskmaster, his assistant Paul Williams fills the Alex Horne role perfectly. Like Horne, he’s quick witted and never breaks his whelpish character. While he fits the series like Alex fits in the original, he brings his own brand of lovability.
Furthermore, the tasks really land. They rival the British series in cleverness and chaos, like having 5 minutes to reassemble a stripped keyboard, then write a letter to the Taskmaster with whatever keys they fixed.
Taskmaster USA on the other hand…