all the television I have watched in the last however long it's been: taskmaster, series twelve
a series of very silly tasks about collective grief and seasonal depression, or how to ruin things by enjoying them
a few days ago, I set out to write one of the “all the television I have watched in however long” posts that have been a semi-regular feature on this newsletter for the last year and change (you can find the previous ones, in order, here, here, here, and here). Instead, the entry about Series Twelve of Taskmaster grew to the size of its own essay, and so I’ve decided to just send that by itself. I’ll send some of the other ones, too, in separate pieces or as one big thing together, at some point, probably soon. Anyway, here’s Taskmaster.
Taskmaster, Series Twelve
I stopped watching Taskmaster last year right around the time when I had talked about Taskmaster so much to so many friends that finally everybody else was watching Taskmaster. But I couldn’t do it anymore.
Taskmaster, which is neither as popular nor as well-known as I think it is after convincing almost all of my friends who weren’t already watching it to watch it, is a very silly and long-running British TV show in which mildly to moderately famous comedians do bizarre, nonsensical, and extremely stupid tasks. The two hosts are Greg, an enormously large man, and Alex, a man who is a normal amount of large, whom Greg ceaselessly roasts for being small. The tasks, and the show itself, are as low-stakes as it is possible for anything to be— there’s no cash prize, all the victor gets is a trophy in the shape of Greg’s head—but the format and the fact that many of the tasks must be done in a limited amount of time make them feel breathlessly urgent. Tasks include things like choreographing a dance to an ‘00s cellphone ringtone, destroying a cake in the most beautiful way, inventing a sport and recording a commentary track for that sport, getting a bunch of dogs to all stand in the same place at once, or making “the best noise.”
One way I’ve tried to explain Taskmaster is that it’s like American Ninja Warrior but British and for nerds with no athletic ability (which is, crucially, different from people who don’t like sports; watching Taskmaster is more like watching an NBA game than like watching scripted television, but if the NBA players were very funny and attractive British people who had never heard of basketball before in their lives and then had it explained to them for approximately fifteen seconds before being pushed onto the court). I’ve already written about Taskmaster, and what I love so much about it, at some length here. Since then, several better writers than myself, including my friend Jess who originally introduced me to Taskmaster, have written better than I can about Taskmaster and what makes it so great.
But at some point maybe last summer, I stopped watching Taskmaster. Friends, in many cases ones who were now watching the show because I had so relentlessly promoted it to them, tried to talk to me about the newer seasons and I sort of vaguely nodded along. If pressed, I would explain that I was behind on it, or that I just hadn’t watched that particular season yet. What I didn’t say was that I didn’t want to watch it at all anymore, and that anything from this show, which I had previously loved so much as to make it part of my personality, had begun to feel repellant and itchy to me. It was like that untraceable moment in a relationship when one last small fight pushes it over the edge and something snaps. I had put too much weight on Taskmaster, and it had snapped beneath me. I had asked it to be more than just a silly TV show, and it had granted that wish in the way wishes are granted in fairy tales. Taskmaster had become something other than a show in which people have to paint a painting of a horse while riding a horse. Taskmaster wasn’t Taskmaster anymore; Taskmaster was 2021.
The present moment becomes the past so quickly. Things accumulate significance faster than we can ever stop the process from happening, or even predict its occurrence. It’s just an unremarkable Thursday night, and then it’s a Thursday night during the winter when things were bad. Thursday night in the past tense is Thursday Night playing itself in a morality play. One day watching Taskmaster was just watching a silly British game show, and the next day it was the thing I did when I was indoors and depressed across a long, bleak winter. Everything about the show, every gleeful Greg laugh, every contestant asking Alex increasingly panicked questions during a task, every pratfall and every good-natured exchange of insults, looked and felt like being inside too long, like hating my body, and being tired for no reason, and worrying that nothing was ever going to change.
The problem with using anything as a substitute for joy when no joy is organically available is that eventually it reminds you more of the circumstances that got you there than of the joy it provides. At first a British game show can stand in for the feelings you might get meeting up with friends or going out to a big dinner late at night or wearing a party dress and gathering in someone’s overheated kitchen to gossip underneath the noise from the other room. But pretty soon that TV show just reminds you of the fact that you can’t do those things and are relying on a TV show in their place. At some point Taskmaster became not a show about British comedians cheerfully humiliating themselves at the whims of a seven foot tall man who is a cross between the most popular teacher at your high school and a great dane who doesn’t know he’s bigger than the other dogs at the dog park, but instead a period piece about the unrelenting darkness of the winter in 2021.
Television is almost always about what I was doing when I watched it, and rarely about the television itself. This isn’t anything new. The episodes of Mad Men or Six Feet Under that I consider particularly brilliant are just as much about whose house I was in, what couch I was sitting on, and who was in that room with me when I watched them a decade ago. Shows from when I was younger are precious to me not because they were any good, but because I watched them in the house where I grew up, or with the best friend I no longer speak to, or with my mom when laughing at the same jokes in an episode of television substituted for the conversations that we couldn’t have. Some television feels like a Sunday afternoon because it is compelling, or trashy, or comforting low-stakes, and some television feels like a Sunday afternoon because I watched it for the first time on a particular Sunday afternoon, and that episode of television is the way that I am best able to recall that particular Sunday afternoon.
But now there is so much television, and none of it is very good. Maybe it’s just that the sheer quantity makes it impossible to feel like the good stuff is good, all of it over-discussed and overanalyzed and over-heralded with big clanging pronouncements about genius. Maybe some of it really is genius, but there is so much of it that it all curdles together into a sort of beige mass, like blending all the dishes at a buffet into one bowl of protein-heavy glop because there isn’t enough room on your plate. Everyone is watching everything all the time, and nobody is really watching anything. I have been talking about television non-stop for at least two years, and I can name maybe two things I have genuinely loved (unfortunately one of them is the first season of Ted Lasso, yes I know, I’m sorry) in that time, despite exclaiming over at least a dozen other things as “the best thing ever.” There is so much abundance, and so little breathing room.
In this ubiquity, television more than ever becomes the story of what happened in our lives. Watching things is a way to break up the monotonous record of another month and another week and another year. I have measured out my life in coffee spoons goes the old poem in the shape of a meme. I have measured out my life in TV episodes about high school and marriage and trauma, about sports and the future and the past, about jobs and computers, in cartoons about mental health and in sitcoms about hey did you know your friends can be your family.
And I have told the story of the long plague years that arrived in the middle of my thirties, right when I was sure my life was finally starting, when it had all at last begun to sparkle and I was sure that here I was, finally old enough and finally together enough and finally loving the right people, finally ready to actually do something for once, the year when the long disaster of a new world came in and trashed all of that hope and all of those plans, settling a heavy grey sameness and a seasonal panic that did not remit with the seasons down over top of it, with a British game show where a very large man makes fun of another large man for not being quite as large as him.
I have referred to Taskmaster as “smooth-brained” so many times despite the fact that I hate that phrase, and I have referred to Taskmaster as “what got me through the pandemic” even though the pandemic isn’t over and I haven’t gotten through anything. I’m still here, in the middle of it, watching another season of Taskmaster and resenting that this is the part of my life with which I associate it. In the only way that really means anything, this is what Taskmaster is about: Taskmaster is a show about the year that’s now three years long that came in and ate up all our lives. It is a show about the storm that swept across the landscape and our helplessness in the face of it, the horrors and the cruelties that it revealed and how little there was to do about them. It’s about how grief is sometimes dull and grey and boring, and how people tell you lots of stuff about grief but nobody tells you this, how grief is an emotional neighborhood like east Midtown, all the good diners permanently closed and every building ugly and unwelcoming, no green spaces and nowhere to sit down and no good bars for twenty blocks, expensive but uselessly far from any subway, with piles of snow from two weeks ago turning black next to piles of garbage in the heavy daylight.
What Taskmaster is about, for me, now, is waiting for something so long that you realize actually what you are doing with your life is waiting. It’s about the way my apartment seemed big enough two years ago and now it seems small and cluttered and disgusting. It’s about my fears that I’ll never be able to afford to live anywhere else, and how quickly life telescopes in, smaller and nastier and less forgiving, when you are waiting for something to end and something else to start. Taskmaster reminds me not of why it’s funny when someone has to juice a lime with a shoe, but of how often the things we convince ourselves are temporary in order to get through them become permanent. I hold my breath, and I blink, and here I am; the thing I thought I was just trying to get through is the place where I live. It’s too late now; guess you should have been doing something during all that time you spent waiting, during all that time you spent thinking that this was temporary. Taskmaster is silly, and good, and hilariously pointless, but Taskmaster is also the story of the last two years of my life, which means that— just like these last two years— even the good parts are tainted, because they remind me of all of the other parts.
Anyway, I did finally start watching Taskmaster again, which doesn’t mean that any of this changed. I would love to say that it had, but the stink of it is still there, a piece of clothing that’s had coffee spilled on it so many times that that’s just what color it is now. But two friends had a conversation about Series Twelve in front of me and I wanted so badly to be able to participate that I decided it was maybe time to try it again, which is the same motivating force behind, if I’m honest, an uncomfortable amount of choices that I have made in my life.
It turns out Series Twelve is unbelievably charming, even by the standards of Taskmaster. The whole thing radiates that feeling when you tell a joke and everyone in the room laughs at once without hesitating. Most of the Taskmaster casts are lovable in one way or another, but this one really particularly feels like a party where every single person at the party is both nice and cool. Victoria Coren Mitchell discovering that the skills required for being good at Taskmaster are in fact the exact opposite of the skills required for being good at poker is both hilarious and a surprisingly moving lesson in humility and grace. I want to believe Morgana is what I would be like as a Taskmaster contestant, and I know that that’s flattering myself way too much, but she is a beautiful inspiration for all of us intent on wearing weird jumpsuits and dramatic mascara into every next phase of our lives. There are several tasks that made me actually shriek with glee when they were explained. I am in love with Desiree Burch just like, I assume, every single other person who has ever consumed a piece of media with which Desiree Burch was involved. There is one moment during a live task that Thomas and I had to rewind no fewer than five times to watch again because we were laughing so hard. At one point, Greg (6’8”) calls Alex (6’2”) small in possibly the best way at any point in show’s run so far. There’s a task where the contestants all have to give each other gifts that was so nice it almost made me cry, except for one gift that was so mean it made me drunk with power and able to see through time.
Taskmaster is ruined for me because of how I first watched it, and Taskmaster is the last two years of my life, but Taskmaster is also just Taskmaster, very stupid and very good, like when people too old to play drinking games get drunk at a party and decide to play drinking games anyway. It feels a little bit like the kinds of small parties people have now, when none of us remember how to throw parties but we throw a party anyway and have a great time, even if some parts of it are silly and nervous and awkward, and don’t really make any sense. We stand up again, we make each other laugh, we make our stupid little drinks and put together our stupid little outfits and do our stupid little tasks. Nothing means anything but that doesn’t mean that nothing feels good. I want every best thing in the world for everyone on Series Twelve of Taskmaster. I like all of them so much that I almost don’t resent them for the fact that I know about them, or Taskmaster, at all.
this is griefbacon’s weekly public essay. they’re not usually about television but sometimes they are, and the next few might be. there’s more stuff just for subscribers on weekends and on mondays; sign up for a subscription here if you want to check it out. thanks so much for reading. xo