The Masked Singer: The Dystopian Singing Competition with a Heart of Gold


Explaining The Masked Singer— a new singing competition on Fox which just wrapped up its first season— is an almost impossible task, but one which I have attempted breathlessly to almost all my friends since watching the first episode. The premise is deceptively simple: twelve celebrities of comedy, sports, and/or music fame, compete in a singing competition. Each week, one is sent home until the final champion is crowned. The twist? Celebrities’ identities are hidden until they are eliminated.


It seems like pretty standard reality TV fare— so much so that I felt certain that this premise had been used before (it has, in South Korea)— but after a few minutes of watching this show it is clear that it is so much more (both exciting and confusing) than the sum of its parts.



The first indication that The Masked Singer is something more akin to a program that you glimpse on a TV in the background of a Black Mirror episode than your typical singing competition is the costumes. To ensure the contestants remain anonymous, a lesser show might have had judges facing away from the stage, à la The Voice, or perhaps have the singers perform behind a screen as silhouettes. Instead, participants on The Masked Singer are each given an animal character to embody for the entire season, with full coverage costumes to match, all designed to look like furries going through a steampunk phase.



The panel of judges— singer Robin Thicke, comedian Ken Jeong, former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger and anti-vax spokeswoman Jenny McCarthy— prove pretty nonessential to the show. They don’t have any elimination authority and mainly seem to be there to remind audiences that they “have no idea who’s behind the mask!” (The show does succeed in the difficult task of making professional slimy-guy Robin Thicke seem likable. He takes his guessing the most seriously, and watching him scribble notes on clues he thinks might lead him to uncovering the identity of someone wearing a Unicorn fursuit is endearing.)



The real heart of The Masked Singer, though, comes from the competitors. A show that forces celebrities of varying levels of success to dress up like mascots and perform could easily fall into the territory of embarrassing and degrading, but the contestants on The Masked Singer all seem genuinely excited to participate in the competition, stating various motivations such as some time out of the spotlight, a period of  self-reflection, or a chance for redemption after a criticism-filled career.



And some of them are, like, really famous! Of course, the standard celebrity talent show fare is there— the kid of famous parents, the less famous member of a long-defunct boy band— but there are some people with no need for extra recognition who, I can only think, would participate in such a strange activity because it is fulfilling.  Without giving anything away— I want to ensure everyone experiences this wild ride to its fullest— the celebrity who ultimately wins is someone who probably played an important role in your adolescence and who no one will see coming (except for me, because I am a genius celebrity detective and guessed it on the first episode).


It’s fun to see celebrities attempt a skill outside of their field, in a format that, due to the partial anonymity, seems less exhibitionist than similar shows such as Dancing with the Stars. When in their exit interviews the booted contestants are asked by host Nick Cannon (of course the host is Nick Cannon) why they chose to be on this show, most of them, who already have Emmys, Grammys or Super Bowl rings to their name, say it’s because they’ve always loved to sing, and, for some reason, I believe it. Despite having a cast who spend ninety-nine percent of their airtime embodying characters such as a friendly monster and a straightjacket wearing rabbit, The Masked Singer feels, as far as reality TV goes, surprisingly real.

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