If the mark of a great TV series is poor imitators in its wake, Taskmaster is starting to look like a classic. Revive the panel show by making comedians tackle ephemeral challenges instead of just doing a quiz, it said. Easy! But if The Island (Dave) is any indication, rebottling the Taskmaster magic is far more difficult.
Warning klaxons sound straight away, as the host, Tom Allen, opens proceedings by getting bogged down in explaining the concept. Four comedians are on an imaginary cruise ship that has run aground. Four uninhabited islands are within reach. Each comic must found a new society, shaping every element of its imaginary way of life, in the hope of persuading the highest number of imaginary passengers to become citizens.
First, the comedians – Ninia Benjamin, Ahir Shah, Sara Pascoe and Johnny Vegas – must name their island. What’s a funny name for an island that isn’t real and, at the moment, possesses no characteristics? Well, there isn’t one. Pascoe calls hers “Magical Island”, which leads into an odd bit about the place being full of magicians. Vegas goes for “Sale Now On”, on the grounds that cruise passengers tend to be old people who are congenitally unable to resist a bargain – at least that’s a gag, albeit not a good one. Benjamin barely even tries with “St Benjamaninia”, while Shah chooses “Poyais”, because this was the name of an island invented by a 19th-century fraudster, which is less a joke and more a relevant fact.
Round two asks the comedians to nominate a celebrity to be their chief of police. As the names come in – Sean Bean! Mystic Meg! Gregg Wallace! Ricky Grover, the excellent but not that well-known comic actor! – any hope that someone will have thought of a funny reason for saying them ebbs, and the fatal flaw of the set-up is confirmed. The Island is so nebulous and contrived, it is asking participants to conjure laughter up out of nothing. It’s crypto-comedy. People who are funny for a living cannot do it.
With so many programmes now involving three, four or possibly five comedians thinking of things or completing tasks, a hierarchy exists that in theory decides where such shows are available. The best ideas go to terrestrial TV, with satellite channels just below. Further down the food chain are Radio 4 series, followed by overlong podcasts you reluctantly subscribe to having seen them on the Apple homepage a hundred times, followed at the very bottom by podcasts behind paywalls that non-subscribers never hear about.
Being on Dave, the original home of Taskmaster before its big-money move to Channel 4, puts The Island on level two, but it should rightly be down there grubbing with the podcast hordes. Indeed, it was co-created by James Acaster and Ed Gamble, the presenters of Off Menu – a podcast where comedians talk about food they enjoy. Acaster and Gamble should probably have noticed that whereas that format prompts revealing anecdotes about real life, so that guests are funny in a new and relatable way, The Island … doesn’t.
This show is a filmed podcast. The only advantage for us of being able to see the comedians, rather than idly half-listening to them while we cook, go for a run or redo some bathroom sealant, is when they make clay busts of themselves, to be assessed by Rich Miller from The Great Pottery Throw Down. Miller makes some generic ceramic-y comments (“I love the material qualities coming through”), assigns random points, then wanders off.
Other than that, the comedians spend the hour sitting round a table, saying things. Near the end, they play a simple parlour game, where they have to think of famous people who have places in their names, which suggests every single scribble on the ideas-meeting whiteboard has been used. Then, we realise that, as in Taskmaster, The Island is going to feature the same people every week. This is alarming: episode one has already accidentally included several shots of Pascoe smiling wanly as another of her colleagues’ quips collapses like a sherbet canoe. How stricken is she going to look in week five?
Allen perhaps deserves the most sympathy. He is an indefatigable pro in a crisis like this, able to spritz the deadest moments with vinegary camp. You feel he could have a decent crack at fronting a show where comedians name their favourite prime numbers, if that hasn’t already been commissioned by Audible as a 43-parter hosted by Dara Ó Briain.
Allen does provide the episode’s funniest moment, but when that moment is him pretending the sound of the ship’s horn is him farting, it’s clear this vessel is stuck. The Island is beyond rescue.