One of Taskmaster’s most recurring jokes is that Alex Horne is the show’s lackey. The affable, awkward assistant is described as “little Alex Horne” by host Greg Davies, even though the hit comedy series was actually his idea. But now he’s breaking out. Horne has his own comedy series called The Horne Section TV Show (Channel 4), about his fictional quest to create his own comedy series called “The Horne Section TV Show”, with his real-life band, who are called… The Horne Section. Still with me? Buckle up; we’re getting meta.
And meta it is: the show opens during a recording of Taskmaster, with Davies – clearly hamming up his tyrannical on-screen persona – berating his co-host to the audience while Alex (Horne playing himself with extra humility) fidgets in the wings. Alex is a man with great ideas, worn down by years of TV bureaucracy and living in Davies’ shadow. Asked if he wants any lunch, he meekly replies: “Me? No, I ate yesterday.”
Alex dreams of leading his own live musical chat show – which he wants to film in his own house – but he can’t even get a 10-minute meeting with Channel 4 boss Ash (Georgia Tennant). In the end, the show is green-lit – but only after she sends him a congratulations email by mistake. “It was an accidental commission. We’ve all done it,” Ash insists, rolling her eyes and expelling vape steam out of her nose.
It might sound a bit inside baseball; an interest in the TV production process will definitely heighten your enjoyment, but it’s secondary to the show’s endlessly charming, offbeat humour. We follow Alex from the show’s poorly perceived pilot to inexplicable social media success, while he struggles with finally finding success after years lurking behind the scenes. But just as Alex’s show-within-a-show is a mishmash of genres, so is Horne’s sitcom. In one scene, everyone is forced to wear giant plastic hands (including reluctant guest Martin Kemp) and the band’s saxophonist plays his instrument through a trunkless Henry vacuum cleaner.
Horne’s comedy has enjoyably magpie-ish tendencies. The show is a whirlwind of wacky, cartoonish vignettes, random musical numbers (very Flight of the Conchords) and abstract sight gags (very Toast of London). Horne has recruited an eclectic range of names to get in on the joke. The “guests” on Alex’s talk show play against type and have a blast doing it: daytime telly darling Dr Ranj is snappy and rude, rapper Big Zuu loves to knit and musician Imogen Heap sings about taking MDMA. But the highlight has to be John Oliver as Alex’s desperate-to-please, “genuine nightmare” of a co-host. When Oliver first appeared on the show over video call, I rolled my eyes (Zoom fatigue exists for TV as it does for real life), yet he’s just as captivating and hilarious virtually as he is on his own show.
The Horne Section TV Show paints a pretty bleak picture of the TV commissioning biz, suggesting getting anything made is a fruitless endeavour without a big name attached – and even then, it needs TikTok appeal to be a hit. But Horne’s show sparkles when it’s at its most meta, obsessed with mocking the industry. When it reverts to a standard sitcom format, it loses some of its oomph. But it’s pulled back later in the series, when Tim Key makes an appearance as a celebrity-obsessed therapist who everyone keeps saying looks like Tim Key. Alex, driven mad by the stress of success, breaks the fourth wall, shouting: “Maybe I have changed! Maybe my character has developed!” Alex may have struggled with the pressures of breaking out, but Horne, creator of The Horne Section TV Show, excels at it.