The Surreal Pleasures of ‘The Masked Singer’

The Surreal Pleasures of ‘The Masked Singer’

Who Is That?

The surreal pleasures of The Masked Singer.

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The Masked Singer presents its viewers with a paradox. On one level, the show is easy to grasp. “Here’s how the game works,” announces host Niecy Nash in the fifth-season premiere. “We’ve got famous people wearing crazy costumes.” The contestants perform a song, and the panelists—Ken Jeong, Robin Thicke, Jenny McCarthy, and Nicole Scherzinger—attempt to guess who they are. Then they and the fans vote, and the lowest-scoring performer is eliminated and removes their mask, revealing their identity. Since its 2019 debut, it has been a huge success, with high ratings and a recent spin-off (The Masked Dancer). Clearly, something about it works.

Yet no one who watches The Masked Singer knows what the hell is going on. Critics have described it as a “deranged reality TV fever dream,” “a simulation glitch of a show,” and a “mass-broadcast psych experiment” run by “absolute sickos.” There is a sense among fans and reviewers alike that watching The Masked Singer requires subsuming your rational, pattern-seeking mind in its surreal logic. You must heavily annotate any description of the show to avoid sounding insane to those who haven’t seen it: A sentence like “Jenny McCarthy won the Golden Ear after guessing that the Crocodile was Nick Carter” is incomprehensible unless you know that McCarthy (a judge) won the Ear (a made-up prize) after identifying that Nick Carter (a former Backstreet Boy) was performing as the Crocodile (a hot-pink reptile wearing a bowler hat and cape).

Given the consensus that The Masked Singer is the prime-time equivalent of doing mushrooms in a puppet factory, its runaway popularity comes as a surprise, especially compared with more straightforward TV competitions like Dancing With the Stars and Top Chef. But the show’s surreality is more than a quirk—it is the secret of its appeal. At a moment when the pressures of real life feel especially acute, it’s a relief to have a show in which the outcome truly doesn’t matter to anyone. It’s the rare show on television that allows viewers to turn off their brains, sit back, and enjoy.

The universe of reality TV is vast, and while it involves the cross-national exchange of ideas—American Idol’s origins are English; The Masked Singer itself is based on a South Korean show—the franchises that become popular in the United States tend to appeal to a distinctly American brand of meritocracy. Whether they explicitly cite hard work as the key to advancement (The Apprentice, Shark Tank) or glamorize it through a creative field (America’s Next Top Model, The Voice, Chopped), these shows present an update on the myth of bootstrapping. The only thing standing between a hardworking individual and success is the wrong audience; get in front of the judges and show them you’re a star, and you’ll be rewarded.

Reality-TV victory seldom translates into real-life success, but that fails to dim these shows’ popularity. We don’t watch because we genuinely believe that the winner will become America’s next top model or the next Food Network star. The winner’s life after the show is an epilogue: nice to know about, but inessential. The pleasure of watching relies on the sense that the show happens not in the real world but in a universe adjacent to it, one that’s both simpler and more heightened. The rules are clearer, and the rewards are larger. The scaffolding of challenges won or lost and advantages gained, arbitrated by judges with unquestioned power, support the fantasy that the person who plays the game best will rise to the top—an elusive outcome in the mess and unfairness of the real world.

This is an old formula, and it works well. But the joy of The Masked Singer is that the show jettisons it. No one is struggling to make it; they’re all celebrities and have already achieved some measure of success. There is no prize money at stake, just two golden trophies, one of which is shaped like a mask and the other shaped like an ear. You don’t know who the contestants are until they get voted out and leave. Some aren’t even good singers! But none of this matters: Crowning the best vocalist is the point of The Masked Singer like returning to Ithaca is the point of The Odyssey.

This means that to watch The Masked Singer is to be deprived of one’s moorings for processing the emotional drama of reality TV. There are no underdogs or villains or tearful confessionals; there is barely a narrative. When the contestants aren’t singing, they speak through voice modulators, narrating “clue packages” of inscrutable hints and imagery: chess pieces, bagels, George Washington statuettes, ballet shoes, and pickles, all whizzing by at a rapid clip. There is nothing in the show that resembles what we call life. It is nearly impossible to see yourself anywhere in it, to relate to any of its characters. One reason is that they’re wearing masks and performing pop songs in high-glam mascot costumes; another is that the show’s surreality makes its stakes feel incredibly, therapeutically low.

In discarding the familiar reality-TV meritocracy arc, The Masked Singer is the rare show to bank its appeal on pure aesthetics: a palette of body glitter, pyrotechnics, bright colors, and exaggerated proportions. There is an absence of critical affect, even in the judging—off-key performances are usually described as energetic or fun—and moments of self-mockery are rare. Judges remain straight-faced while using the pseudonyms of the performers, as if they were state officials. “I want to tell you, Popcorn,” McCarthy solemnly says to one contestant dressed in a crystal-embellished popcorn costume, who turns out to be ’80s pop star Taylor Dayne, “how blessed we are to have you on this show.”

On the rare occasions when The Masked Singer addresses politics, this bubble remains intact. In a recent episode, McCarthy guessed that the performer inside a snail costume might be Senator Ted Cruz (who, as it happened, had fled his disaster-stricken home state of Texas for Cancun a few weeks before the episode aired). In the third season, the inhabitant of a pastel bear costume who had rapped a gender-swapped version of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” turned out to be Sarah Palin. These events lack the traction with reality outside the show necessary to interpret them. The familiar critiques of a TV show hosting a controversial politician don’t work here: The show didn’t really provide Palin with a platform to air her right-wing views, since her speaking time was limited to lines like “I, Bear, exercise my right to a killer performance.” Nor could the episode be described as “normalizing” Palin, since there was nothing remotely normal about it.

There was a small dust-up in 2020 over The Masked Singer’s use of editing tricks to fake a live audience, even as Covid cases and deaths were on the rise. Andy Denhart, who writes the blog Reality Blurred, argued that the choice to broadcast footage of an unmasked audience laughing and hollering signaled to viewers, erroneously and dangerously, that large indoor gatherings were safe. When Denhart raised the issue with the judges and creators of the show at a press conference this past March, showrunner James Breen disagreed. “I think people are pretty sophisticated, and I think everyone knows what’s going on in the world right now,” he said. “I don’t worry that people think [the live audience is] real.”

My inclination with cultural products like The Masked Singer—things with a glitzy surface and nothing underneath—is to read them as late Roman Empire decadence, signs of the growing gap between what the powerful and the powerless find beautiful, interesting, and worthwhile. That sensibility is certainly present in The Masked Singer, but it is perhaps too easy to dismiss it on these terms alone. To borrow Breen’s phrasing, I think everyone knows what’s going on in the world right now, and we can find escape in a show so over-the-top that it belongs to everyone and no one. “We want to give people something that takes them away from reality,” Thicke said in response to Denhart’s question. “We want to give them something to celebrate, great music and great times, and remind us that those times are coming soon again.”

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