The Masked Singer is truly avant-garde TV, forcing you to ask yourself tough questions. Like: How is this happening? Are we really witnessing a televised sing-off starring Z-list celebrities disguised as the Lion, the Alien, the Peacock and the Bee? Did I just eat an ayahuasca cronut or am I actually watching the Unicorn sing “Oops! I Did It Again”? How did Robin Thicke reach the “judging a Fox singing contest with Jenny McCarthy” point of his fame arc so fast? Why is Terry Bradshaw crooning a Florida Georgia Line song in a Deer costume? Who the hell came up with this idea and why it is so ludicrously perfect? Aren’t we all masked singers in our way? Why is this America’s new favorite show of 2019? Could this mean the end of TV as we know it?
The answer to the last one is easy: Yes. The Masked Singer is so profoundly weird and creepy and brilliant, it can only mean the death of all we hold sacred. It’s a prime-time ratings blockbuster that gets more insane every week. But it also has moments of bizarre poignance. I had a feeling or two when the Pineapple who sang “I Will Survive” turned out to be legendary stoner comic Tommy Chong. This might be the druggiest thing Chong has ever done; compared to The Masked Singer, Up In Smoke looks straight-edge. Last night, at the end of week three, the judges unmasked the Deer — everyone knew it was Bradshaw — and he was so grateful to be finished with this humiliating ordeal, he thanked everyone who voted against him. Let that sink in: *Terry Bradshaw looked embarrassed*.
Every week, through performances and taped video clues, The Masked Singer takes us further into the heart and soul of our contestants: Lion, Hippo, Monster, Peacock, Poodle, Alien, Bee, am I missing someone? Ah yes, the Rabbit. Loved your “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” Rabbit. Every week, the studio audience “votes” for the loser, who gets unmasked at the end. Host Nick Cannon swears he has no idea who the 12 celebs are. (“Some of them may be my friends. Some of them I may have married!”) They flex onstage to the Who’s “Who Are You,” with Roger Daltrey wailing, “I really wanna know!” (If you have a Pete Townshend fan in your life, please respect their privacy at this difficult time. No one knows what it’s like.)
There’s a panel of four judges guessing who’s behind the masks: Robin Thicke, Ken Jeong, the Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger and Jenny McCarthy, or as her chyron calls her, “Jenny McCarthy Wahlberg: Pop Culture Guru.” (Nicole’s says “Singer-Songwriter.”) Nicole has swiftly become my favorite judge. Last night, when the Deer’s video clue showed him throwing things, Nicole yelled, “Oh my gosh, throwing! Who does that? He’s a… thrower!” After the Peacock hinted, “I was cast in some dramatic roles,” she mused, “Dramatic roles? He could be an actor!” When the Unicorn promised, “I’m going to exude model behavior,” Nicole was on the case: “She’s maybe a model?” Watching Nicole’s powers of deductive reasoning over the next couple months will be a real pleasure.
Imagine my surprise the first week when they unmasked the Hippo and it turned out to be… a guy I’d never heard of! The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. Hey, millions of people like to watch Pittsburgh Steelers games, and millions of people like to watch Poodle vs. Peacock sing-offs, but I’m guessing they’re not the *same* millions of people. The second week it was Tommy Chong, who definitely counts as famous for those of us who grew up memorizing Cheech & Chong records. (“Who is it? Dave? Dave’s not here!”) But since two out of the three unmasked so far have been NFL players from the same team, it looks like Fox didn’t get a wide range of yeses. Last night the Lion sang Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” leading Ken Jeong to say, “Lion, I am in your Pride!” (Everybody seems to suspect the Lion is Rumer Willis and they’re probably right.)
Another tough question: Why are we still pretending not to know the Unicorn is so obviously Denise Richards? Last night she confessed, “I lost my sheen.” Come on! When asked if she was a gymnast, the Unicorn replied, “In the bedroom!” Nicole knows it’s Denise by now — when it comes to being bewildered by things, even Nicole has her limits. It’s not complicated, Denise Richards. But the guessing game is part of the fun. Note: These are not “spoilers,” because I don’t know a thing besides the fact that I want the Raven to be happy, whether or not the Raven is Ricki Lake, which she pretty darn clearly is. But go ahead, pretend you can’t guess the Peacock, despite the fact that he’s a former teeny-bop idol who turned pro when he was five, and he moves just like Donny Osmond on Dancing With the Stars’ Vegas Night. At least one of these people has to be Joey Fatone, right? (Who are you, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo? I really wanna know!) I can’t tell which one yet, but if Joey Fatone didn’t show up for a gig like this, something is very wrong. Sadly, there’s no Cat, Demon, Spaceman or Star-Child, though I bet Gene Simmons has his legal team all over this anyway.
Every week, The Masked Singer is designed to look like it’s happening live, but are you the viewer invited to vote? Of course not. (Wow, hard to believe Fox would have a casual approach to the democratic process!) It was clearly all filmed in one weekend, months ago, and it’s also clear that everybody involved had their fingers crossed it would never actually make it to air. Last night Joel McHale was a guest judge, sitting next to Ken Jeong, which made the whole show look like one big Dan Harmon fantasy — it evoked the Community arc when Chang takes over Greendale and celebrates his birthday with a 10-minute keytar solo.
It’s based on a huge South Korean hit, The King of Mask Singer — the original had contestants like “Sexy Vocal Cricket,” “Amazon Cat-Girl,” “Giant Chestnuts of Bread,” “The East Invincibility” and “Bob Ross.” (In the Korean edition, the Unicorn who sang “Tomorrow” turned out to be Ryan Reynolds.) Yet it feels like there’s something deeply and scarily American about this version. When Nick Cannon calls it “the most revealing show on television,” he isn’t wrong. In a way, Nick summed up The Masked Singer after Tommy Chong got the axe. Nick asked a very good question: “What would make you put a pineapple on your head and sing ‘I Will Survive?’” Tommy replied, “Anything to get onstage.” A disturbingly American answer — one that can only mean that The Masked Singer will be part of our future. Save us, Lion.