Task #2021.3: rank all series of British TV show Taskmaster.
Nobody watches Taskmaster for the educational value. There is nothing to be gained academically from seeing five celebrities sweat it out in a house, trying to figure out how to finish tasks, while disapproving Taskmaster Greg Davies and his loyal assistant Alex Horne (the real brains behind the show) judge them in the studio. Lateral thinking is a possible outcome, but if you’re the sort who looks at entertaining TV series and tries to pick something out of it, you really need to start getting a life. Or you’re a fan like me. (I recognize that the two are not mutually exclusive.) The question I ask myself, though, is: is there some way to turn this fandom into something constructive? Surely there is something positive to be squeezed out of my obsession with this kitschy, small-budget TV show?
Behold, I humbly submit my personal list of rankings of all series below. These are purely subjective, and if you’re interested in talking about it I welcome civilized discussion in the comments. If you’re here to look for a place to start watching, the ones from my 4th place onwards are pretty great. Or maybe not. I’ve finished my task — yours is to see for yourselves.
Your time starts now. (Minor spoilers below, you have been warned, etc, etc.)
12. Series 1 (2015)
A classic case of early instalment weirdness, this one gets a lot of credit for the sole reason that Romesh Ranganathan can be seen throwing a watermelon to the ground in the first episode. Scratch beyond that, though, and you find only a vaguely amusing show: the dynamics are not well-established, the energy is low as hell, and most damningly of all, everyone spends ages trying to figure out whether the action they’ve just seen — watching Alex eat toothpaste, for instance — is supposed to be funny. Loads of people like to complain about contestants who don’t know what they’re doing: this grand tradition begins with Roisin Conaty, the grandmother of them all. I know it’s a bit harsh to judge it based on how awkward everything is, but seriously. It’s all very boring, and possibly the only series I try to actively avoid.
Favourite task: “Paint a picture of a horse, while riding a horse.” (episode 1)
MVP: Romesh Ranganathan
11. Series 3 (2016)
To be clear, this one is perfectly serviceable on its own. And that’s the whole point: I don’t really like this series because of how average and forgettable it all is. For every series, I can name at least two or three tasks that I loved in. This one didn’t have any — the most I remember is Rob Beckett cackling madly, but he does that for everything he’s in anyway. Everyone just seemed to be stuck on one setting too — Paul is grumpy, Dave is polite, Al is rich and so on. Of course, five episodes is not enough for us to get to know all of them well, and the format is partly to blame for the series being meh. But I do not watch this series for ennui, and I’d only watch it if all other series had been wiped from existence.
Favourite task: “Surprise Alex when he emerges from the shed after an hour.” (episode 2)
MVP: A bit hard to choose — everyone’s equally average. Oh alright, Paul Chowdhry then.
10. Series 8 (2019)
Yes, this contains probably my favourite task in all the series — the railway yard hide-and-seek is probably the best thing to have ever happened in the whole show — but it goes downhill from there: awkward pairings, lacklustre banter and distinctly uninteresting tasks with few stakes. But the biggest problem is how forced it all feels — I know that every contestant needs to have at least one win here, but in the case of Joe Thomas’ winning episode this is engineered so blatantly that Joe’s win felt hollow, something gained through the producers’ machinations more than Joe’s own merits. I also found myself actively disliking Iain Stirling’s behaviour on the series: he’s what I think of when I imagine white, privileged arseholes who can’t bear losing to someone else. Thank God for series 9 afterwards.
Favourite task: “Sneak up on Alex.” (episode 1)
MVP: Joe Thomas
9. New Year’s Treat (2021)
To be honest, I wish we got a little more time with these people: everyone seemed to have potential to be interesting, and yet we never got anywhere with these guys. Part of the pleasure of Taskmaster is seeing contestants slowly reveal their true selves while having to defend themselves, and Rylan was the only panellist who actually made the effort — the others were just half-arsing it. Greg seems to be slightly more polite with this bunch instead of his usual domineering self — which fair enough, given that almost all of them are more famous than he is — but none of the panellists made an attempt to substitute as the large alpha character this series so desperately needs. As it was, this special is a perfect example of why Taskmaster needs at least 8 episodes — without getting an insight into their characters, the whole special just drifts slowly by.
Favourite task: “Build the lightest tower on this set of scales.”
MVP: Rylan Clark-Neal (John Hannah makes an impressive run for it though)
8. Series 6 (2018)
Unfairly maligned as one of the worst instalments of Taskmaster — the official YouTube channel has yet to release any clips of this series — this one actually is quite serviceable when you come to take them task by task. It’s a story of contrasts: Asim, Liza and Tim make for a great team, even though Alice and Russell are evidently the more competent ones; Alice is the bubbly cynic while Asim is the scrappy fighting his way up. But I agree with the general consensus that it gets boring later on, as panellists hit the same note over and over again, with only the occasional zany moment saving them. Instead, this one sticks out in my mind most for the development of Greg and Alex’s relationship — who can forget the rapturous moment when they actually, finally, kissed? In any case, while the entry above demonstrates why you need longer series, this one demonstrates why 10 episodes isn’t necessarily a good idea either.
Favourite task: “Write a bedtime story for grown-ups.” (episode 3)
MVP: Liza Tarbuck
7. Champion of Champions I (2017)
Now THIS is how you make a shortened series. Of course, this series was clearly an afterthought of sorts: created on a whim just as an excuse to milk the five champions being together in one room and make them go through the same thing again; what I appreciate about it is how hard you have to look to recognize this. Yes, I can’t remember anything about these people except Bob Mortimer, but they don’t skip a beat in reminding me just why they have been crowned champions of their respective series (except Bob, who with every single thing he does makes me wonder why he did win his series). Unfortunately there are a few clunkers in this one that don’t gel the harder you look, and Katherine’s approach to “the biggest mess” task struck me as just a step too far. To date, it’s the only task which I haven’t watched in full even once. The drama’s just too much, you know?
Favourite task: “Write down a word beginning with T every time Alex blows his whistle.” (live, episode 1)
MVP: Bob Mortimer (obviously)
6. Series 2 (2016)
This series and its tasks are constantly cited as the prime example of what Taskmaster is about, and though I don’t agree with this idea in full (see my 4th place for that) I do see how a case can be made for it. After all, this is the one where contestants begin to think out of the box: when people begin to realize that you can swerve and break the rules, their internal conflict and the lengths they’re willing to go to be creative pull this series out of the dumps of series 1. But if you want to argue for this series as textbook Taskmaster, though, look no further than Joe Wilkinson’s infamous sudden disqualification, which dropped him squarely into last place, and endangered his marriage certificate. It’s the first instance where the stakes are significantly heightened, and you realize the key thing that has glued me to this show ever since: anything can happen.
Favourite task: “Impress the mayor of Chesham.”
MVP: Jon Richardson
5. Series 4 (2017)
And here is the other factor that has kept me a loyal fan to Taskmaster all these years. I was already biased towards Hugh Dennis the moment I realised he was part of this series; what surprised me was how much I liked the other contestants by the end of the whole thing. To be fair, the ability of the contestants to be endearing despite their serious flaws is made easy here: they are almost always friendly with each other — how can you be mean to bubbly Mel Giedroyc? — and there’s no sense of urgency about the whole thing even as they continue to deliver the laughs and chuckles. It’s Taskmaster for the slow living. And that’s ultimately what also limits this series: it’s a warm bath, rather than a shock to the system that elicits strong gasps from the sofa.
Favourite task: The bathtub task (team, episode 5)
MVP: Hugh Dennis
4. Series 10 (2020)
Who says that pandemics make for bad television? This one has all the hallmarks of a great Taskmaster series — chaos flying everywhere, snarky characters trying to stealthily one-up each other (and failing), and most gloriously of all Katherine Parkinson slowly letting herself go and enjoying the moment (if one can call it that). Any fear that Alex might be running out of ideas after ten series (as I had when comparing this series’ treasure hunt to series 9’s choose-your-own-adventure task) is quickly, violently assuaged by what he’s been able to achieve with a larger budget: he utilizes the warehouse to great effect, and excellent comedy ensues. The only thing that was holding me back was how much the audience were not laughing — Mawaan just cracked a hilarious joke, LAUGH YOU BASTARDS
Favourite line: “Silently make the tastiest and prettiest cocktail with the best name.” (episode 6)
MVP: Katherine Parkinson (by a country mile)
3. Series 5 (2017)
The first “great” series on this list. I have said that anything can happen on this show, but imagine my surprise when renowned actress Sally Phillips demolished all decorum and started stuffing cake down Alex’s armpits while giggling like she was having the time of her life (and given that she was going through a divorce at the time, it probably was). From there on it only gets more chaotic: Bob Mortimer discussing his pooing habits, Aisling and Alex’s deadpan reactions to a jelly sliding down a pole, and Sally’s water cooler moment — everything this lot does just sends sparks flying, and this show is all the better for it. Taskmaster, at its heart, is not about people performing tasks: it’s about how people interact in a bigger world while showing how they can be individuals with complex characters. For its simultaneously elegant and messy depiction of this fact, this series vaults its way into greatness. (It also helps that this bunch is easily the most attractive cast this show has ever gathered.)
Favourite task: “Create the best splat.” (team, episode 2)
MVP: Bob Mortimer (“do we strike you?”)
2. Series 7 (2018)
Let this series show that Alex Horne is truly a genius. The tasks themselves are nothing special — with every rewatch (my third this winter) I notice just how many of these tasks are mundane and threaten to tip into boredom. But Alex knows that the key to a good series is having a good cast, and it’s in the interplay between the plainness of the tasks and the lengths to which everyone is willing to complete them that perfect comedy is born. Every single person has something to grab your attention this series: the fury of James Acaster, the determination of Kerry Godliman, and of course Phil Wang’s… um, costume. But it’s Rhod Gilbert’s no-shits-given rampage through the series that ensures that I keep coming back: the man is already pure chaos, but it’s the effortless way with which he takes everything to the extreme that makes this pure entertainment — and shows Alex Horne’s genius in between the humiliations.
Favourite task: “Tie yourself up as securely as possible.” (episode 10)
MVP: Rhod Gilbert
1. Series 9 (2019)
Imagine series 7, but on steroids. This is difficult: series 7 was easily the most high-energy of the ones broadcast before autumn 2019, and upon turning on this series I felt certain that nobody could top Rhod Gilbert’s destructiveness. There isn’t, and thank God for that, for it means that I can appreciate all five contestants equally. I can appreciated them as they succeed and fail at tasks, I can appreciate everything they bring to the table, and above all I can appreciate the energy with which they tackle all of the tasks — even Jo Brand, whose trademark nonchalance on everything feels like another sort of power on its own.
But the thing that sets this series apart from the rest is the tension — on multiple occasions I found myself leaning forward on the sofa, scrunching up my fists to see how these crazy people were gonna do, and this when I already knew the results. In previous seasons, I was acutely aware that these people were only entertainers, people who had signed onto a comedy show and were now performing for our benefit. In series 9, I found myself worrying for the panellists’ welfare, not just how fairly they were being judged by Greg (that’s inevitable in every series) but also how they were showing themselves as a person. I wondered how David Baddiel was doing (so badly). I feared for Ed Gamble’s sanity again and again. And when Katy Wix disappeared for two episodes, her presence was acutely felt despite the wondrous performance of her substitutes.
This series does things to you that you don’t understand. I still don’t understand it, actually. But I have always felt that, no matter what the next five series will offer, none of them will be able to top the special relationship that these five fine people in series 9 have. It might not be true. But for making me feel that, series 9 is and shall remain forever the best.
Favourite task: “Do the most preposterous thing with this chickpea.” (episode 10)
MVP: It’s a duel between Jo Brand and Rose Matafeo… you watch it and pick for yourself.
I’ll update this list as new series air, which should keep me occupied for the next two and a half years — hopefully I’ll see you round here in the summer as we add series 11 to the list! (One final spoiler: I’ve already picked my MVP, due to my longstanding crush on Charlotte Ritchie…)