It started as a placeholder—frivolous background noise to have on while chopping garlic. But then something changed. Maybe the singed winds of wildfires and melting icebergs blew through our window causing a chill or we finally had enough of this relentless Great American Tension Headache brought on by the news. Or maybe it was simply that my husband and I gained access to Hulu Premium (thank you, Sara). Whatever it was, whether or not we realized it, we were desperately seeking an escape when we stumbled into—and fell hard for—The Masked Singer.
To the readers rolling their eyes at this headline, believe me: I was once like you. After seeing a teaser for The Masked Singer on Fox, I thought, How $#&*!#@ dumb? What is wrong with our culture that The OA is canceled and yet this monstrosity of mediocre celebrity and spectacle gets prime-time positioning? Do we seriously need another B-list panel of Hollywood “names” to judge their same ilk? We put up with the Simon Cowell industrial complex for so long and all we got was Kelly Clarkson (worth it). Must we really tune in for more? And c’mon?! Nick Cannon has had enough screen time, right?! Right!?!?!
Wrong. I was so damn wrong. Let me explain.
The Masked Singer (the American version, at least) is a “game show” with very few (if any) stakes, where celebrities (and the celebrity-adjacent) take on larger-than-life alter egos in full costume (e.g., the Penguin, the Monster, the Leopard) to perform songs anonymously in front of a live audience and a panel of judges. No one, not even the crew working behind the scenes, knows who is who. The contestants “face off” against each other, and each episode has an elimination where the losing contestant is unmasked. The others move on and get to sing another song. The season culminates in one winner who gets a trophy.
But let me reiterate, despite the eliminations and ultimate winner, there are really, truly no stakes. Everyone is a winner. Yes, I love the cutthroat dealings of Succession and the table flipping of The Real Housewives, but there is something so freeing in knowing all of our contestants will be taken care of, emotionally at least. Sure, the Penguin might be going home, but all the “critiques” from the judges are positive and encouraging, and all the cheers from the audience are heartfelt. All the masked singers, even the bad ones, get a standing ovation. Isn’t that a nice world to live in?
The panel of judges—currently composed of the irritating Ken Jeong, the weirdly palatable Jenny McCarthy, the stalwart Nicole Scherzinger and the troubling and sleepy Robin Thicke—is the Greek chorus that mirrors us at home. While watching performances, they mostly say things that reiterate the premise of the show, like “Who is that?” or “But who can that be?” or “I have no idea who that is!” There are also some concerning trends: Thicke comments on women’s bodies, and whenever they think a contestant is a certain gender, race or orientation, they’ll guess the same people over and over and over again (e.g., Neil Patrick Harris, Jamie Foxx). They will also state the absolute obvious, like “That person can sing!” or “This person has done this before” or “They’re definitely a pro,” without adding a single layer of helpful analysis.
But after a couple viewing sessions, you on your couch, thousands of miles away from The Masked Singer arena, start yelling things at your screen, like “Who is that?” or “But who can that be?” or “I have no idea who that is!” And so you forgive the judges, because at the end of the day, they are us and we are them, serving little to no purpose besides being an on-screen proxy set of eyes to be entertained.
So, let’s talk about that entertainment. I never thought watching an anonymous clown-person perform every track from The Greatest Showman would be my undoing, and yet here I am, undone. My point of view before becoming a Mask-Head (what my husband calls us) was that the contestants on this show were washed-up B-listers that nobody cares about. And a lot of them kinda are. But that’s the beauty of this show. It creates a vacuum of all the industry’s worst qualities—tabloid culture, typecasting and the cold discarding of “washed up” talent—and uses it as its entire premise. The show provides anonymity for its contestants. They almost all comment on how freeing the experience of singing under the guise of a glorified mascot is for them. It’s also freeing because they can perform in different capacities than they’re expected to while unmasked. The reveal of the Monster from Season 1 will absolutely blow you away. He was already successful in the music world, but he was trapped doing the same thing over and over again…until The Masked Singer.
But it’s the Peacock’s journey (Season 1) that made me truly fall in love with this show. The Peacock went hard. He danced. He sang. He gave it all. While other performers had to be escorted around the stage because it’s so hard to see through their masks, the Peacock would fly with jazz hands into the audience and back onstage again. It didn’t matter that you couldn’t see his face, because you could feel it. Appearance, age, celebrity (or obscurity)—none of that matters when you’re on the show. The only thing that matters is what you do that night. For some, that means showing off your talent that’s been collecting dust in the attic because the industry cast you aside. There are moments on the show where, because you’re not consumed by their real identity, you can get lost in the performer’s sheer talent. It’s lovely to be reminded that even in the carnivorous machine that is stardom, there are real talents who have the ability to transcend (please see the Flamingo’s performance of “Never Enough” in Season 2).
And no, the Peacock was not Neil Patrick Harris or Jamie Foxx. He was another name that you probably know and will be happy to see getting some national stage time. His reveal will also remind you why that person was famous in the first place, for his talent, not for being a has-been.
As for the other camp of contestants, sure, they can kinda sing and dance, but the mere act of showing up is often winning enough. It’s a brave thing to come out and sing your heart out on TV. You might not move on in the competition, but you’ll get a standing ovation just for trying, because we all know what you’re actually saying is “You forgot about me, but I’m still here and I still have worth.”
We’re so used to punishing people who aren’t as famous as they once were: “Oh, her? She got so old.” But The Masked Singer isn’t about kicking a celebrity when they’re down. If anything, it’s about redemption—for the contestants, of course, but also for us, the viewers. If this show has taught me anything, it’s that it’s so much more joyful to send a celebrity home with a standing ovation than to make fun of them for trying.
The Masked Singer is an escape from the constant barrage of bad news, but it’s not just mindless garbage. It’s a platform for kindness. Millions of people are watching this show, which makes me happy, because we need more nice in the world. Isn’t it good to see that nice sells? I hope it means millions of people will spread the joy—mini standing ovations for anyone who tries to do something great.
I’ll start with you, Nick Cannon. I actually think you’re a great host.