The Masked Singer Review (TV Show, 2019)

The Masked Singer Review (TV Show, 2019)

I’m no stranger to singing reality shows. I’ve watched everything from your smash hits (American Idol, The Voice) to shows people might remember as if part of a fever dream (The Road to Stardom with Missy Elliott, The One: Making a Musical Star). It’s just hard to know what’s going to make it or not with so many reality shows produced each year. It’s not a matter of having talent, but having an audience to watch.

The Masked Singer, based on the hit South Korean reality show King of Mask Singer, is a new singing competition on Fox. It’s very low concept in its format. 12 celebrities from the worlds of sports, music, and acting wear elaborate mascot costumes to hide their identities. Their speaking voices are pitched up and their faces are hidden throughout the rehearsal process and whenever they enter/leave set. A panel of four judges attempt to figure out who the contestants are based on clues in interview packages and their analyses of the performances.

The contestants are also competing against each other in a popularity contest with the studio audience. For now, they compete in head to head matchups where one singer is declared safe and one singer is up for elimination. The eliminated contestant is decided by…we don’t know since it was never specified. When the eliminated contestant is selected, the judges get a final guess each on who they think the celebrity is. The contestant removes their mask, does a quick interview, and then reprises the song they sang that got them eliminated.

The Masked Singer is just strange. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because the concept is so weird, everyone involved is just going for it. The costume department, especially, is doing incredible work. The design of the masks alone make it worth watching. Then you get into the costumes that help create characters like a shy unicorn or a fallen from public favor monster and you get a living cartoon reality competition. The contestants are living out their superstar fantasies, complete with backup dancers and overblown arena concert lighting. It’s hilarious.

The judging panel is where my reservations lie. Nicole Scherzinger, lead singer of the Pussy Cat Dolls and unexpected muse of Andrew Lloyd Weber (no, really: did you ever see her perform “Phantom of the Opera” at the Royal Variety Show? She has those Christine whistle tones on lock that are typically lip synced by the actors in professional productions to preserve their voices. Scherzinger deserves better music than what her career has allowed her). She’s a wonderful singer and has a great personality. I trust her to not only judge a singing competition, but to use the advantage of her singing with so many other artists to ID anyone she recognizes. Her casting makes sense.

The rest of the panel is the questionable part. Ken Jeong is good TV. He’s funny and he’s quick. He’s not a singer, but at least he’s entertaining. He’s effortless and knows how to play to the camera. I’d rather have musicians judge a singing contest. If they need a comedian, at least let it be a good one with improv training like Jeong.

Robin Thicke is a singer, but he’s also a problematic performer with a history of stealing songs, appropriating black culture, and exploiting women onstage. I don’t like seeing him in a position of judging the appearance, movement, and vocal stylings of other performers. I just imagine him living by his no-consent anthem “Blurred Lines” and worry about what he’ll want to do to the contestants, production staff, or audience members when the cameras aren’t rolling.

Worst of all is the inclusion of Jenny McCarthy Wahlberg. It’s not that she’s not a talented and experience TV personality; she is the face of the incredibly damaging anti-vaccination movement and I’m personally not comfortable with her having a national platform. I see her sitting there, cracking jokes and having the time of her life, and I can only think about the thousands of people she’s convinced through long-debunked research that vaccinations cause autism so you shouldn’t vaccinate your children. None of that feels on brand for a primetime reality series with performers in colorful mascot costumes singing pop songs.

This is a lot of baggage for a silly reality show, but it’s all I could think about throughout the episode. Every time I would get into the mystery of who the singer is (The Unicorn is totally Tori Spelling, I spotted that straight from the Hollywood royalty growing up in Beverly Hills but told again and again that she wasn’t good enough to have her own career opening package; The Peacock is Donny Osmund, again spotted by the package where he started performing with his family at five and was a teen idol but isn’t anymore), it would cut to Thicke and McCarthy Wahlberg sitting next to each other on the panel, making fun of someone else’s performance. I could make fun of their performance as human beings, too, but I don’t have a camera pointed on me while they try to be funny judging a reality show.

There’s also some pretty blatant production shenanigans going on already. Since the rules of The Masked Singer are so ill-defined, the show can blatantly ignore the will of the audience to advance a storyline. Take The Unicorn versus The Monster. The Monster has a beautiful, trained soul voice and an ease with moving and performing for an audience. The Unicorn has a sweet soprano, but is clearly incredibly anxious and didn’t bring a lot of energy to the performance. The Unicorn was declared safe and the Monster was at risk of being eliminated despite the audience going off for the Monster and the judges praising him more than anyone else that night. I feel some celebrities with more experience, especially in reality TV, might have negotiated a certain amount of appearances at the expense of more entertaining performers.

The edit is also really questionable. I mentioned above how Scherzinger probably knows who the musical celebrities are from their voices. The trained singers, so far, have distinctive tone qualities and styles. The only comments we get from her as the judges attempt to identify the clear singers (The Monster, The Lion) are denying options. She’s not in this group, he can’t be that person, etc.. The Masked Singer is trying to live in the surprise of who the contestants are, so they obviously will not show a correct guess from the judges on a contestant who isn’t being eliminated that episode. The closest we got in the first episode was the panel discussing if The Lion is one of the members of Fifth Harmony; I also thought that and her package and interview responses make it clear she was part of a girl group and wants to prove herself as a solo artist.

Further, the preview packages for the show (and even the teasers contained in the episode itself) spoil so much of the program. Everyone is going to be revealed at some point. We know this. Yet they clearly show five contestants going for their masks, including the one eliminated in the first episode. They also show other songs performed by contestants who weren’t eliminated in the bottom three before they revealed who lost, so we already knew who was going home before it was announced. That’s poor editing no matter how you slice it. It comes back to the ambiguity of the concept. If it’s just about the celebrity reveals, then don’t pretend it’s a contest; if it’s a contest, don’t spoil your own show’s results during the episode.

I’m going to give the show one more episode just to see if any of the inconsistencies settle out and start to make more sense. I’m just struggling so hard with most of the judging panel that I don’t feel like I can keep watching and supporting in good conscience. The show isn’t about the judges, but supporting a show that casts problematic celebrities in that role is not something I feel great about. My morbid curiosity about the other six contestants is what will bring me back and I’ll probably leave it there.

The Masked Singer airs Wednesday at 9PM EST on Fox.

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