Melanie Bracewell in Taskmaster NZ; a traitor in The Traitors NZ (Image: Tina Tiller)
Melanie Bracewell in Taskmaster NZ; a traitor in The Traitors NZ (Image: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureAugust 22, 2023

Taskmaster NZ’s latest task? Defeat The Traitors NZ in a head-to-head battle

Melanie Bracewell in Taskmaster NZ; a traitor in The Traitors NZ (Image: Tina Tiller)
Melanie Bracewell in Taskmaster NZ; a traitor in The Traitors NZ (Image: Tina Tiller)

Two high-profile local reality series are facing off in an old-fashioned primetime TV showdown. Chris Schulz tunes in.

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Sieni Leo’o Olo, the stand-up comic also known as Bubbah (also known as Tina from Turners), is sitting in a caravan dressed as a British schoolgirl. “Me and my friends will blow a load out there,” she says, wafting a hand towards the window. She flirts with a belt tied around her neck, then butchers a thick Cockney accent. “I’m out there skanking and a’ ganking,” she says. Pleased with her own quotable, she shortens it to, “Skanky ganky,” and smirks at Paul Williams. Taskmaster NZ’s taskmaster’s assistant shakes his head and looks down at the table. He’s confused. “I don’t really understand what you’re saying,” he mutters.

For this task, contestants must be “as British as possible”. Karen O’Leary became a football hooligan, Dai Henwood quietly queued for far too long and Melanie Bracewell did some colonising. Bubbah, this season’s wildcard who appears to have never heard of Taskmaster before she arrived on set, seems to believe she’s auditioning for a spot on Love Island. “How come I saw you chattin’ up Dana?” she asks Williams. “Oh my god, I’m going to cry on national TV now … do you just go around here like a lad with your physique toyin’ with everyone’s feelings?”

Bubbah: star of Taskmaster NZ season four (Photo: TVNZ)

Around the same time, over on Three, something more brutal is happening. Murder is afoot in a mansion full of comics, influencers, radio jocks, former Taskmaster contestants, C-list celebrities and several people who fit every single one of those categories. “The votes have been cast,” declares ringmaster Paul Henry in his best Batman villain voice. Mike Puru, who can usually be found selling knick-knacks to daytime TV viewers, looks sick. He has every reason to be: he’s been eliminated. “Mike, with the largest number of votes, you have been banished from the game,” announces Henry with glee.

Henry’s entire television career seems to have been an audition to play the villainous host of this new imported reality format, The Traitors NZ. Clearly, he’s loving every second of it – especially when Puru reveals to the castmates who eliminated him they’ve got it wrong. He’s not one of the game’s traitors. Instead, he’s a “faithful” – one of the good guys. “Nooo … oh Mike,” moans comedian Justine Smith as he departs. Henry rubs his hands then dishes out some sage advice to those remaining. “I suggest you sleep with one eye open,” he says, stomping out of the room.

Back on Taskmaster, Bracewell is meowing like a cat. On all fours with feline face paint smeared across her nose and cheeks, she toys with a ball of wool, then laps at a saucer of milk. She’s been tasked with doing something surprising. O’Leary kissed Williams on the lips, and Bubbah tackled him to the floor. Bracewell has gone full feline before realising her mistake. It’s all for nothing. She’s supposed to complete her task once a timer ends, but there are 120 seconds still to go. Desperate, she throws the contents of a rubbish bin over her head. “I can’t believe I crawled around the ground meowing and licking milk out of a bowl … in my spare time.”

Over on Three, tensions are high. Matt Heath has been caught red-handed. “I’m looking forward to getting back to my kids and my dog,” he tells a pensive room full of nervous contestants who have just eliminated the radio DJ and former Taskmaster contestant. Heath decides to go out with a bang. He raises his hands in the air and yells: “I was a traitor … see you in hell!” The room erupts like they’ve just won the World Cup. This is exactly the kind of moment The Traitors was built for.

Matt Heath: Traitor (Photo: Three)

The 7.30pm timeslot on Monday and Tuesday nights has suddenly turned into a battleground. On one channel, we have the return of a local stalwart propping up the local comedy industry. Taskmaster is a frequently funny UK import now into its fourth season, and has created young stars, cemented others, and boosted morale during a bleak Covid lockdown. Occasionally, it delivers unmissable absurdity into the TV history books. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched David Correos’s demented freestyle battle, but it makes me cackle deliriously every time.

On the other channel, we have the hyped newcomer on the scene. Overseas, The Traitors is the hottest reality TV property since muscled-up singles were placed in a resort and filmed for our enjoyment on Love Island. Dark, twisted and cruel, The Traitors asks contestants to lie and backstab for our entertainment, and gives Paul Henry a reason to smirk mercilessly. Who is a traitor? Who is a faithful? Which one do you choose? Do you watch one show then stream the other, or flick between the two? How do you keep up?

It’s a tough choice. Taskmaster NZ remains reliably entertaining but it’s also showing signs of its age. Little has changed since season one: each season’s slate of contestants feel like they’re picked to fill certain roles – the ageing pro, the young one, and, in the case of Bubbah this season, the wildcard. Recent challenges have felt a bit hit or miss, like an early attempt this season to hit some cricket wickets with a ball. If Taskmaster NZ makes it to season five it may need a revamp, or they may need to look further afield to find a fresh batch of cast members. How about five wildcards? That kind of chaos could be supremely watchable.

The Traitors is also compelling viewing, although its casting is baffling. Overseas, randoms are usually thrown together, but here the cast is mostly made up of the same reality TV rabble we’ve seen on previous seasons of Dancing with the Stars or The Masked Singer. Perhaps that’s designed to entice viewers to watch a new format for its first season, but if The Traitors NZ survives for another, it will need to get more creative with its casting. Shirley from Hawera taking on Michael from Remuera during the robust round table conversations is what this show is all about.

The real question is, why are these two local productions going head-to-head? Everyone knows linear television is tanking, viewership is down year-on-year, streaming rules and the kids are all on TikTok anyway. Putting two of the biggest local reality shows of the year up against each other in a prime time ratings battle harkens back to a time when Paul Holmes was enticed across to Prime TV’s studios only for no one to watch, or when John Hawkesby was bought out by TVNZ and then paid even more to quickly depart.

In other words, the networks don’t really seem to be that competitive anymore, and they might be shooting themselves in the feet by squaring up like this. Either show could easily have waited a couple of months to find clearer water. Still, I’m happy it’s happening. Competition is a sign of a healthy TV industry, and it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to say we’ve had anything close to resembling that. Pass the popcorn. Let’s hope this is the start of a new kind of modern TV revival.

Taskmaster NZ screens on TVNZ 2 at 7.30pm Monday and Tuesday nights and is available to stream on TVNZ+. The Traitors NZ screens on Three at 7.30pm Monday and Tuesday nights and is available to stream on ThreeNow. 

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