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Every Wednesday evening, 6.7 million Americans tune into Fox’s celebrity singing competition, The Masked Singer. I am one of them. I am also not the target demographic, which is network-tv watchers between 18-49 who have children. I’m a millennial who hasn’t watched “real TV” on my television in ten years. I’d rather stream obscure two-hour BBC dramas on my laptop than tune into X-Factor during primetime. But when it comes to The Masked Singer, I’m living my best monocultural life.
To watch The Masked Singer is to experience utter absurdism: nothing matters and nobody wins anything. Sixteen celebrities (of the B, C, and influencer variety) wearing disguises compete in head-to-head singing battles for a studio audience. The audience votes, and then additional head-to-head “face-offs” (sponsored by WWE, of all things) determine which two celebrities will be “unmasked.” Judges guess the identities, but the guessing is without consequence. The judges don’t really judge, either. There are no points. The voting isn’t tabulated in any mathematical way. The studio audience taps on some kind of phone app, but we’re never privy to scores or final ballot counts. The season finale winner receives a tiny, plastic trophy. At some point, you realize you’re watching a competition that’s not even about winning.
Then, there’s the pageantry. The singers are escorted by fake bodyguards to raise the suspense. Clue packages (pretapes often shot in public parks) deliver slant poetry about contestants’ discographies. RuPaul’s Drag Race may be America’s first drag competition, but The Masked Singer is definitely second. (Coincidentally, The Leopard is rumored to be RuPaul.)
If you enjoy Broadway, the work of Jim Henson, Cirque du Soleil, or Burning Man, you will definitely appreciate The Masked Singer’s commitment to immersive production design. Designer James Pearse created a giant LED glass stage that can play video from every angle. There’s also trap doors, pyrotechnics and two 25-foot-tall faces in which the contestants enter through the mouths. Coachella wishes.
Costumes come from the wild mind of Marina Toybina, a designer best known for those viral Katy Perry shark costumes. Toybina had less than two months to conceptualize, sketch and execute these full-body personas that often inform onstage character choices. In season one, Joey Fatone’s straight-jacket-wearing Rabbit produced a number of twitchy, unhinged pop-punk covers that were captivating and funny.
The heart of The Masked Singer is in the storylines. When we cast aside Reality TV 2.0 necessities like points, judging or at-home participation, viewers are treated to emotional stakes depicting human universals. Last season, during Ricki Lake’s unmasking as The Raven, she said, “The Raven is about death, but it’s also about rebirth. I went through the loss of my husband last year and this was an opportunity for me to share my journey through his loss.” Season winner T-Pain (Monster) used the show to renounce a career marred by Auto-tune and launch a comeback.
We don’t live in a world where celebrities get to make fools of themselves anymore. Public figures must abide by their “personal brand” in person and online, 24/7. A lot of us non-famous people probably feel that way. But if Keeping Up With The Kardashians offers celebrity wish fulfillment, The Masked Singer asks us to imagine being so famous that the only thing you desire is creative liberation. It offers the famous a chance to go back to the moment when all they had was “It,” and they were determined to make the most of it.
The show is not without its caveats. Masked Singer gives anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy a public platform as a judge. On the other end of the judge’s table, Robin Thicke can’t seem to stop himself from making creepy remarks about female contestants’ bodies (“Look at those legs!). And, a few bored pro-athletes thrown into the mix dulls the competition. Still, NFL Hall of Famer and announcer Terry Bradshaw’s rendition of “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons was surprisingly good last season.
The Masked Singer exists outside of clap-back culture. It’s not savage or cancelable, it’s undemanding and weird. Whether producers like it or not, it exists in the same cultural universe as Gritty and Dat Boi, doggy gimp masks and furries, the Cats reboot and the live-action Lion King. The Masked Singer isn’t a hit because it’s a “guilty pleasure,” as many critics called it. The Masked Singer is a hit because the American monoculture is experiencing weekly exposure classic camp. And for once, it’s not kept behind expensive tickets to a Broadway show or a music festival in the desert. It’s all there on Channel 5.