Alex Horne, a comedian effectively unknown to American audiences, has created the best game show currently on television. “Taskmaster (U.K.),” the first of eight country-specific Taskmasters including a one-season failure based in the U.S., is currently on its 12th series. The show has been gaining a lot of popularity in the U.K., with an average of 2.7 million viewers per episode, but has yet to find much of an audience in America. This is a huge loss for the American public and reveals a much deeper flaw in U.S. TV: our disregard for panel shows.
Panel shows are a staple of U.K. television that have no U.S. equivalent of any quality (though some argue they started in the U.S.). The shows generally consist of a wide variety of celebrities, primarily comedians, facing off in a series of games or trivia questions with the winners often winning money for charity or just the pride in outwitting the other contestants. Shows like “QI,” “Would I Lie to You,” ”Mock the Week” and “8 Out of 10 Cats” have all been on the air for close to 20 years, are extremely popular and create a wonderful platform for standup comedians to grow their audience and hone their craft. Still, there are plenty of reasons panel shows are not part of American television: there is no universal American humor; our competition shows are largely individualistic and overly intense. “Chopped” and “The Great British Baking Show,” for example, are true opposites not just in how competitive the contestants are but in how the shows are edited to create tension. American and British comics also banter in extremely different ways stemming from deeply rooted culturally divergent outlooks. In the simplest sense, the British are more self-deprecating, sarcastic and cynical while Americans tend to be optimistic, encouraging and straightforward. Thus a television formula honed by the British will rarely work remade by Americans.
With this said, we as a country should not make our own spin on panel shows but instead, embrace the brilliantly made ones coming out of the U.K., specifically “Taskmaster,” the best panel show. The majority of shows in the genre are a group of people sitting behind desks talking and answering questions. “Taskmaster” shows five comedians watch themselves do tasks they completed weeks earlier and then be judged by the Taskmaster (Greg Davies). The task may be anything from making the tastiest cocktail as quietly as possible, to creating a video for a nursery rhyme, to giving little Alex Horne a special cuddle. Each of the contestants does every task, and whoever the Taskmaster deems superior wins that round.
Each series of “Taskmaster” is, in slightly facetious words, an emotional journey. Our only recurring “characters” are the Taskmaster and his assistant, little Alex Horne, the brain behind the show as well as its punching bag. The five contestants change each series and whether you come into the new series knowing every single panelist or not having the faintest clue as to who any of them are, you will grow to know and appreciate every single one for the unique personality they bring to the show. But this makes the first episode of the next series a bit of a drag. Right after all the panelists have established themselves as individual characters as well as a group with a particular dynamic, these comics are ripped out from under you and replaced with a new set of strangers. This sounds dramatic, and it is, but after an incredible series (my personal favorites are four and seven), it can take a few episodes to adjust to the new group who often starts slightly disjointedly. Within an episode or two though, every season finds its stride. There are fun tasks, likable panelists and the Taskmaster and little Alex Horne’s relationship is always adorable and hilarious.
It always feels necessary to provide some sort of warning when recommending a British show because they have a distinct sense of humor and it does not appeal to all audiences. “Taskmaster,” for the most part, defies the limits of its very British sensibility by containing a wide variety of comedic styles that anyone can enjoy. Plus, the first nine series, as well as shorter clips, can be found on YouTube. Give the show a try and learn if the large genre of British panel shows is up your alley.