Television is a world of minor miracles, of odd little triumphs and things that shouldn’t work but do. Take Taskmaster. A show where comedians are filmed playing stupid games, then gather on a stage to argue over the footage is somehow into its eighth season on the jolly banter channel Dave. It evidently costs about £65 to make, it is a completely ephemeral waste of everyone’s time, and its continued existence offers an invaluable means of escape.
What worrying or stressful consequences can come from discovering whether the narrator of Love Island can fashion a sexier ventriloquist’s dummy from everyday objects than that guy from The Inbetweeners? Or from knowing who is quicker at finding the other half of a baby monitor, hidden somewhere in a house: her off Peter Kay’s Car Share or him off The Chase? None. The larks here are pure. About the only dire uncertainty when Taskmaster comes back is whether the five new contestants will be quite as funny as the ones in previous seasons. Yet even that has lost its jeopardy now, on account of all seven previous seasons having successfully found – leaving aside the clear divide between the episodes that had Bob Mortimer in them, and those that didn’t – a lineup with chemistry.
So what of the latest recruits? On the strength of episode one, this fresh roster doesn’t boast a master of the callback – that is, the referencing of a motif from earlier in the show in a new and hilarious context – to rival Frank Skinner or James Acaster. It is no problem if the quick quips aren’t coming straight away, though. For the other secret of this cleverly constructed series is that, as well as being a panel show in disguise, the studio segments are also a sitcom in disguise, where everyone assumes a comic persona then bounces endlessly off each other. This time around we’ve got an angry stickler (Iain Stirling), an intense weirdo (Joe Thomas), an oversexed eccentric (Lou Sanders), a bewildered fogey (Paul Sinha) and, er, someone who is just funny and nice and you would like to have a pint with (Sian Gibson).
Always present is the comedy alpha Greg Davies, awarding points with vindictive arbitrariness on his massive throne, next to put-upon sidekick Alex Horne on his small throne – the joke being that Horne created the show and has hired Davies to front it. It is as if Tony Robinson had written all the scripts for Blackadder himself. Or, given that Horne allows himself plenty of good lines (“Just like you [Greg], this task is creative, a little bit flirty, and requires a lot of assistance to do its job properly”), perhaps he is more Nigel Hawthorne in Yes Minister.
Anyway, Horne and Davies tormenting five different comics per season is a proven formula. It is possible, of course, to be too formulaic: Taskmaster’s lineup only broke away from its strict “one BAME man, one woman, all the rest white men” setup in season four, when it allowed a second woman in.
But it almost doesn’t even matter who the contestants are. If the cast is a bit underpowered, Taskmaster gets by on silly charm and on knowing the pleasures of simple games. Some of its finest moments have come from only slightly embellishing the office pastime of throwing balled-up pieces of paper into a wastebasket – and here, the best game is an old-fashioned round of hide and seek variant Grandma’s footsteps, albeit one played in a railway museum and featuring Horne, the spotter, standing on a bridge wearing a helmet covered in fairy lights. It is funny when Lou Sanders squeezes into a bin and shuffles forward pretending to be part of the landscape, but it is even better when Joe Thomas just plays wholeheartedly and fully sprints from one hiding place to another, narrowly making it before Horne pops up again to try to catch him.
In season eight, Taskmaster can still also be ridiculously inventive, in its own homemade way: if your party-game budget can stretch to about 200 doughnuts, you too can enjoy biting them off a washing line with four friends and catching them in the buckets strapped to your waists, with the winner being the player who collects the greatest amount of sloppy doughnut debris, measured in grams.
Who did chew off the most dough? Who won the episode, and who will win the series? Nobody cares, because the point of Taskmaster is that it is a carefree hour filled with comfortingly childish things. Play on.