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Is The Masked Singer Terrible, or Am I Just Old and Cranky?

How to see joy long after adulthood has taken yours away

Malcolm Venable

For the record, I gave The Masked Singer, Fox's new musical competition, a fair shot. I probably even went into it with more of an open mind than I did with The Four, Fox's other musical competition that doesn't seem to make much sense, because I'm easily wooed by shiny things, like The Masked Singer's fantastic costumes. But I did not like The Masked Singer. Of course, "liking" something is about taste, which is subjective, so forget for a moment that I said I didn't like it. The truth is that I thought The Masked Singer was terrible. But is it? I don't know. I can't tell, because I'm old.

The Masked Singer works like this: "Celebrities" -- itself a subjective definition I'll get into more about later -- put on wildly ornate disguises to conceal their identity and then serenade everyone watching. Clues about who the performer is are peppered in, and as the costumed crooner coos on stage, the panel, which includes Ken Jeong, Jenny McCarthy, Robin Thicke and Nicole Scherzinger, guesses who it is. Every week, someone is eliminated, at which point their true identity is revealed.

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On paper, this sounds delightful. And the format has proven successful; The Masked Singer originated in South Korea and became a global phenomenon. Ryan Reynolds famously did the one in South Korea, and the reveal that 'twas the A-list Deadpool star behind the unicorn mask singing "Tomorrow" turned the Internet's hardened heart into marshmallow, if only for a moment. Even I, a person born before the Internet but not that long after Christ, thought it was cute, a welcome break from serious documentaries, heady dramas and troubling 60 Minutes segments like the one about birds eating plastic. But, to state the obvious, foreign TV sensibilities are different than American ones, as are unwritten rules about what constitutes celebrity and what's expected of those bestowed with that title.

Some of the singing is genuinely bad, like the Raven in Episode 2. (Fox made two episodes available to critics.) On the one hand, I'm aware that terrible signing is the point; Fox says the people behind the masks may be Grammy winners, Emmy winners, athletes and the like. Listening to famous not-so-great singers warble is akin to seeing someone like Grocery Store Joe gallop awkwardly on Dancing with the Stars, and plenty of people find that amusing.

Now, I am hardly above base, even crude entertainment; one of my favorite shows of late, Sally4Ever, makes fart jokes and a running wheelchair gag hysterical. It's just that, being old and all, I've seen an awful lot, and if something's going to be freewheeling fun, it needs a little complexity, or a twist, like the continually surprising ridiculousness of RuPaul's Drag Race. By the time I'd already seen the giant (beautiful) peacock in the first episode, witnessing the hippo dressed like someone from Run-DMC screeching out "My Prerogative" didn't make me laugh or smile. It made me feel sad, like going to an amusement park and knowing that the person inside the suit being kicked in the shins by brats is sweaty, underpaid and wants to go home.

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That's how I felt watching The Masked Singer, particularly as the people on the panel threw out absurd guesses (Chris Brown! Meghan Markle!) as to who was robotically moving about -- overcome with the feeling that if anyone here had anywhere else better to be, they would. Part of this has to do with my own, probably outdated notions of fame and famous people decorum. Dating back to an era where lines about what famous people were "supposed" to do were more rigidly drawn, I felt secondhand embarrassment seeing a talented, slightly bruised-in-the-moment singer like Robin Thicke rate the vocal stylings of a six-foot tall rabbit.

But in 2018, the hierarchies of fame no longer form a perfect triangle. Reality show stars, Instagram sensations and YouTubers co-exist with the Hollywood elite in a shape that's more like a Jenga tower, so my snootily looking down on this like the old man on the cover of the New Yorker is irrelevant. Robin Thicke will cash his check regardless. And anyway, the people in the audience look like they're having fun. Good for them. I can't do swing sets anymore, because I get dizzy after. Hard pass on all-day concerts too, because I get tired and need to stretch my legs. Some stuff is fine for other people, but not me, Lil' Morgan Freeman. As I watched the guy (?) wearing a pineapple head and airbrushed abs sing "I Will Survive," I seriously asked myself, "Is this incredibly stupid, or am I just old and overthinking this?" The struggle was real.

The Masked Singer

The Masked Singer


Coloring my perception some was the fact that singing competitions in general are in decline. (Idol only matched The Voice's numbers in its finale and even The Voice is eliminating six weeks worth of Tuesday episodes when it returns in 2019). Singing competitions are almost as ancient as I am, and though they're running out of new tricks, I respect the hustle. In that sense, The Masked Singer is either a wise repurposing of something that's already proven or an acknowledgment that nobody knows what the hell works anymore and literally anything is worth a try. The Masked Singer has a dazzling set, spectacular costumes and the built-in intrigue of wondering who lies within, and I suppose that's enough to make it enjoyable TV. I'll even admit to wondering who was behind the guises in the episodes Fox previewed; the screeners took great pains to blur faces and bleep out reactions. The moment looked positively whimsical, but I didn't care. Even if I wanted to, it wouldn't matter. The Masked Singer comes on at 9 and by then, I'm already getting ready for bed.

The Masked Singer debuts January 2 at 9/8c on Fox.