Let’s get this out of the way first: You are not above The Masked Singer. Everyone involved with the show — from the celebrity contestants, who sing pop songs while wearing ornate animal costumes to conceal their identity, to the celebrity panelists, who try to guess which singing celebrity is behind each mask, to celebrity host Nick Cannon, who is Nick Cannon — is very much aware that they are participating in a weird and dumb enterprise. It is so obviously idiotic that it does not make you smart to hate it, and it is so obviously aware of how idiotic it is that it does not make you smart to love it.
The Masked Singer is a cross between Dancing with the Stars and American Idol, wrapped in the sheen of a novelty guessing game. Like any modern game show worth its WTF factor, it originated in Asia as a show called King of Masked Singer. Unlike Ninja Warrior, Iron Chef, or Brain Wall (aka Human Tetris), all of which were subject to disappointingly tame American adaptations, the stateside iteration of The Masked Singer is even crazier than the original. The show is a complete trainwreck, and the more it goes off the tracks, the more interesting it becomes.
While the Korean Masked Singer only made contestants sing while wearing carnival-style masks, The Masked Singer takes a psychosexual left turn by forcing contestants to wear elaborate animal get-ups which they must then explain in pre-recorded clips offering allegorical clues about their celebrity identity. In the second episode, we meet a rabbit wearing a straitjacket who takes the stage to Fort Minor’s “Remember the Name” while twitching its head. The show cuts to a clip that reveals the celebrity inside the rabbit costume is from Las Vegas and has sung professionally in the past, before the rabbit launches into a Broadway-style rendition of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca.”
Following the performance, the judges guessed that the rabbit might be Lance Bass or Criss Angel. I immediately assumed that he was Brendon Urie of Panic at the Disco, who is from Las Vegas and in 2017 took a turn starring as Charlie Price in Kinky Boots on Broadway. Was I right? Were the judges? The rabbit’s identity is never revealed, and instead Nick Cannon introduces an alien to sing a Portugal, The Man song. Later, a bee stood stock-still while delivering a performance of Sia’s “Chandelier” that was, and I cannot believe I am typing this, frankly jaw-dropping. After its performance, the bee revealed to the judges that she’d been singing professionally since the 1950s, causing them to guess she was Dionne Warwick. Again, they moved on, and the face of the generationally talented singing bee remained masked.
Part of the appeal of a show like The Masked Singer is watching celebrities freely debase themselves. The challenge of putting such a show together, of course, is that the dumber the show is, the less likely that any name-brand celebrity would stoop so low as to actually appear on one just to remind America that they still exist. The Masked Singer deftly side-steps this issue by instead promising the idea of celebrities — Cannon frequently reminds the audience that they are watching masked recipients of Grammys, Oscars, Emmys, and Tonys, while one judge offered that a pineapple who’d just delivered a cringeworthy performance of “I Will Survive” might be Barack Obama — without actually delivering said celebrities.
Each episode, whichever masked singer does the worst job is forced to reveal their identity, an act of ritualistic public humiliation that is only heightened by the fact that they’re never as famous as they might have been. In the first episode, a singing hippo who’d bumbled through Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” was eliminated and the judges were given a final chance to guess his identity. Through context clues as well as hints offered by the hippo, they figured out he was an NFL wide receiver and figured he was Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants, because he is the only current NFL wide receiver that people who don’t watch the NFL can name. When the hippo turned out to be Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers, an arguably better but definitely less famous player than Beckham Jr., it was hard to not feel cheated. This adds a slightly meta element to The Masked Singer — rather than simply trying to match a celebrity’s singing voice to their actual voice, the viewer must ask themself if the celebrity they think they’re watching is desperate enough to dress up as a furry teal monster and sing a Queen song.
The furry teal monster, by the way, is definitely T-Pain. This is what I believe, and this is also what this website devoted to unmasking the masked singers of The Masked Singer believes. But because the monster told the judges that he’d gotten in trouble in the past and also used the word “mixtape” in his intro, one of the celebrity judges — blissfully, I cannot remember which — posited that he might be Chris Brown. The suggestion was wildly outside the realm of good taste and inadvertently revealed the fact that the worst part of the show is not the masked singer but the unmasked panel of celebrity judges. They are, just for the record, Robin Thicke, Jenny McCarthy, Nicole Scherzinger of The Pussycat Dolls, and comedian Ken Jeong, all of whom, with the exception of Jeong, act as if they are under the influence of pharmaceutical sedatives (the manic Jeong, meanwhile, seems to be on speed). Their guesses as to the celeb behind the mask are frequently disturbingly inaccurate — or, in the case of the monster, just disturbing — and sometimes they just give up and refer to the masked singer as “hot” over and over again. Thicke, who is probably the most famous person on the show, will sometimes very confidently proclaim that, as a professional singer, he can tell the performer is also a professional singer, but that’s about as in-depth as the analysis gets.
There are some, surely, who will point to The Masked Singer as the final nail in the cultural coffin, a symptom of the disease rotting Trump’s America, proof that TV executives will air literally any bullshit if they think people will talk about it on Twitter. The Los Angeles Times referred to the show as “a sign of the end times,” while Salon called it “a moving editorial cartoon whose commentary indicts” humanity’s value system. Variety outdid them all, however, writing that The Masked Singer, “seems like confirmation that TV’s finally strayed too far from the eyes of God and may S/He have mercy on our souls.”
These proclamations are a bit much. In his book We All Want to Change the World, media theorist Lawrence Grossberg writes that claims about modern media destroying society are “presented as if, previously, people read great works in intelligent and self-conscious-ways, so that they actually learned about the world and human possibilities.” He continues, “I doubt that popular culture was ever about such ways of reading and thinking,” before quickly running through the perceived social crises brought on by new technologies from the printing press to railroads to TV.” In other words, it’s the lumberjack, not the axe, that’s the problem in these situations.
While that’s broadly true, there is an economic element unique to our era that transcends historical patterns and helps explain why, even though The Masked Singer is just the latest in a long line of gimmicky celebrity-laden TV shows, the genre has gotten more abjectly stupid over time. Prestige TV shows exist almost exclusively on premium cable channels and streaming services, and before long you subscribe to all of them. I subscribed to SHOWTIME because I wanted to watch Twin Peaks: The Return; I subscribed to Netflix because I wanted to watch the new season of Arrested Development; I subscribed to HBO Now because I wanted to watch True Detective; I subscribed to Hulu Plus so that I didn’t have to watch commercials during that show where Jesse from Breaking Bad is in a cult. When I add my Amazon Prime subscription on top of that, these services cost about as much per month as cable TV would. Quality TV costs money, but The Masked Singer, which airs on FOX every Wednesday night at 9, is free. It doesn’t matter if it’s good; only that it’s on, and that it holds my attention.
When the pineapple was revealed to be a sleepy-eyed, technically Grammy-winning Tommy Chong, Nick Cannon asked him why he’d dress up as a pineapple on TV. “Anything to get on stage,” he deadpanned, before launching into a much-worse version of “I Will Survive.” It was surreal, it was crass, it was slightly better than watching a drunk person do karaoke. In other words, it was great television.