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The Masked Singer Is a Reality-TV Fever Dream

Fox’s new singing competition show The Masked Singer is almost identical to the many, many other singing reality shows on TV. The singers perform for a panel of judges. The best singers get to stay and perform, and the worst ones get eliminated, week by week, until a final winner is crowned.

But The Masked Singer is weirder, sillier, and stupider than those shows. It may also be more entertaining than them. It’s definitely more inane.

The Masked Singer’s gag is that its singing contestants are all celebrities — the intro teases them as “Grammy winners, Emmy winners” and major athletes — and they perform wearing massive, impressive, very strange costumes that hide their identities. The host is Nick Cannon (“I have no idea who any of these people are! Some of them may be friends. Some of them, I may have married!”). The judges are Robin Thicke, Jenny McCarthy, Ken Jeong, and Nicole Scherzinger. The vibe of the whole thing is “what if Grittywalked out on a soundstage made to look like an arena concert, belted out Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me,’ was described as ‘a professional’ by Jenny McCarthy, took off his head to reveal he was Joey Fatone, and the entire experience felt three clicks away from an episode of Black Mirror?”

None of the mascot characters on The Masked Singer are actually Gritty, although one is a blue cyclops monster who looks like a distant relative. I can’t tell you if any of the disguised celebrities are actually Joey Fatone, because screeners for the two episodes given to critics carefully obscured the identities of the celebrities who get unmasked. There are some elements of The Masked Singer’s production that also make it difficult to say exactly how the competition works. Because all of the assessments in the first two episodes are made by the judges or studio audience, it’s hard to know if the whole season was filmed in one big chunk, or if it’ll later shift to more timely production schedule. Was the whole studio audience stuck there for several days of production? Would some celebrities only commit if they were guaranteed it’d only take up two days of their schedule? Questions abound.

What I can tell you is that the whole thing feels like a warped, through-the-looking-glass vision of both what reality shows are and what celebrity is. I can also guess that if you’re the sort of person who would enjoy a show where maybe-Joey Fatone dresses like a straight-jacketed version of the rabbit from Donnie Darko and sings “La Vida Loca,” that’s something you already know about yourself.

The Masked Singer is based on the hit Korean reality show King of Mask Singer, where the identity-obscuring costumes were less elaborate and the singers performed for a much larger panel of judges. The show has since been translated into several international iterations, where a performance from the Thai version went massively viral a few years ago. For a taste of the Korean original, you can watch a duet between “Fencing Man” and “Archery Girl,” or sample this milquetoast performance of “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie as performed by a hesitant person in a cheerfully grinning, low-rent unicorn mask, who is then revealed to be Ryan Reynolds.

Many of the performances in the American version are about as underwhelming as Ryan Reynolds’s attempt to sing “Tomorrow,” but it’s hard to blame The Masked Singer for that. The idea is that many of its competitors will not be professional singers, so when a guy with a giant pineapple on his head comes out and stands stock still while taking a wild swing at Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” that feels like par for the course. No, The Masked Singer’s weakness is its judging panel, who are frequently billed as “detectives,” and who approach their jobs with all the insight and acumen of an America’s Next Top Model contestant trying to decipher the Tyra Mail.

“I’ve spent most of my life on a stage, but never alone,” says a singer in a rabbit outfit. “That means in a group!” Jenny McCarthy shouts. “In my family, anonymity is a foreign concept,” says someone dressed as an alien. “Ahhh, famous family,” Robin Thicke nods, wisely. “I just can’t figure this out!” the judges often conclude at the end of a performance, seemingly unaware that this makes it that much more annoying that they’re supposed to be the people who figure it out.

It’s hard to say how much info the judges are given from producers, or whether certain guesses have been seeded ahead of time. Given the general tone of the picks, I have to believe that’s the case. But if the job of naming celebrities is at least partially taken off their shoulders, then the judges’ primary jobs would seem to be commenting on the musical performances or, at the least, being funny. No one seems up to any of those tasks. (Why “vivacious and opinionated” anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy was put up to that task in the first place is yet another of The Masked Singer’s mysteries.) In one of the most egregious “judging” missteps, Ken Jeong spends an entire segment happily and lustily ogling a contestant in a shiny, form-fitting alien costume. I cannot imagine anyone underneath that mask whose identity would excuse a judge frequently leering at them.

Setting aside the brainless judging and the fantastic costumes, the big difference between The Masked Singer and shows like American Idol or The Voice is something unexpectedly deep. Somewhere buried in their cores, the idea of judging a singer on a reality show is often about a slew of powerful American myths. Stories of remarkable vocalists who come from tiny towns in America’s heartland become stories about authenticity and wholesomeness and grit. Singers who’ve been in the industry for years but have never broken through become characters in a story about hard work, about the myth that merit will always lead to success in the end. On a show like The Voice, the idea of judging a vocalist without seeing a person’s face becomes a sacrosanct element of the show: Pure vocal talent supposedly stands alone, prized above any other element of a person’s image or identity.

These are not the myths of American identity that pulse underneath The Masked Singer. If it’s fair to assign this show either an ideology or a worldview (it’s probably not), the show is fundamentally an attempt at celebrity studies. The main point is not merit or authenticity or the myth of pulling one up by one’s bootstraps. It’s about the difference between image and self. It’s about the idea of a celebrity identity as a series of clue-like markers that can be read like a map. It’s about the underlying assumption that celebrity is fascinating, and that it is hilarious to dress famous people up in costumes that — get this! — would prevent you from knowing who they are. The Masked Singer is absolutely imbecilic, except for the fact that it is also a pretty fascinating examination of celebrity culture, mass appeal, performance, image, and fame.

If The Masked Singer has compelling things to say about our global obsession with celebrity image-making, it’s almost assuredly by accident. Little about this production seems self-aware enough to suggest its charming, interesting moments happened on purpose. Except for the costumes! The costumes, really, are good. It’s unclear yet whether whatever’s underneath them is magnetic enough to have lasting appeal.

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