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‘The Masked Singer’ Is No Match for the Original Korean Version

While Fox’s new singing competition show trades on strangeness and secondhand celebrity, its Korean predecessor leans in on the sweetness of its stars

Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation/Ringer illustration

The day I decided to watch Fox’s new show The Masked Singer, I was bedridden and severely jet-lagged from a month-long trip home to Korea. Weaving in and out of consciousness, I witnessed something that should have been only a sleep deprivation-induced dream: a giant peacock strutting his shit on stage while performing a number from The Greatest Showman. A hallucination it was not, but rather the first performance on The Masked Singer, a new competition show in which celebrities donning masks sing songs while a panel of judges try to guess their identities. The reality show, which hit record-breaking viewership numbers for its January 2 premiere, feels like a distinctly American dystopian nightmare—not least because the public cannot seem to turn away from it. But keeping with the recent trend of adapting Korean television shows, The Masked Singer is a Korea-plucked import, originally titled The King of Mask Singer. It debuted on MBC in 2015 and is still on air, with nearly 190 episodes and a steadily high rating (though viewership slightly dipped last year).

The Masked Singer may seem like a giant Donnie Darko leap from more familiar singing-competition formats on stateside TV like American Idol or The Voice. However, this costumed concept isn’t too out of the ordinary for the game-show-crazed Korean entertainment industry. Korea has produced similarly absurd competition shows like Hidden Singer, which asks the audience to distinguish between a real, famous singer and an impersonator, or I Am a Singer, which pits two famous singers head-to-head, sans masks, and asks audience members to vote for a winner each round. Then there are the massively popular gag-based variety shows like Infinite Challenge and Running Man. This kind of multifaceted weirdness is already baked into the Korean television language—perhaps because Korean viewers are fascinated by seeing their glossy, extremely PR-trained celebs let loose while also flaunting the skills they may have picked up from the assembly-line bootcamp training of K-pop-level stardom.

And yet The King of Mask Singer feels far less absurd and nightmarish than its mutated American cousin. The Korean show, which has an endearing charm, mostly relies on masks, as promised in the title, whereas the American version hides its contestants in Times Square–worthy full-body suits that cross the line from adorable to alarming. (To be fair, there’s far less physical diversity among Korean celebrities, so there’s less reason to hide, and there’s much quicker turnover on the original show, with a new batch of contestants added every other episode, which doesn’t allow for such embellished costumes for everyone.)

Also, though the American program puts on more robust performances, complete with backup dancers and light shows, it loses the best part of the Korean format: the duet round. At the start of The King of Mask Singer, two singers share the stage, performing the same song in both harmony and rivalry, whereas in The Masked Singer, two performers sing back-to-back with their own song choice. The Korean format not only eliminates song-choice bias but also allows both performances to be equally fresh in voters’ minds.

After the votes are cast on The King of Mask Singer, the panel of judges interrogates each contestant, who can then showcase some other fun talents, like dancing or celebrity impressions—anything that doesn’t reveal their real voice, and thus their real identity. The loser of the pair is eliminated and unmasked. This happens three times, for the three pairs of singers featured per episode (in the American version, only one singer is eliminated, at the end). The end goal of the Korean version is not just to win, but also to unseat the previous King (who, yes, can be of any gender). Sometimes, the King is so beloved that they may win the title many consecutive times. Rocker Ha Hyun-woo currently holds the record for being crowned nine times in a row.

Then there are different approaches for the talking-head interviews of the contestants, perhaps the key to answering why the Korean show seems genuinely sweet while the American remake toes the creepy line. In The King of Mask Singer, the defeated and unmasked are interviewed in the green room after their reveal, often exposing heartfelt and earnest sides—a calling card of Korean entertainment—as they talk about their lives and experience on the show. But the American Masked Singer flips that order, with the interview portions coming before the performances; Contestants are fully masked for these clips, and their voices distorted (the Korean version also distorts their contestants’ voices, but only briefly during their introductions, not while they’re sharing their life stories). The American contestants drop clues about themselves, often through wordplay (one famous stoner clued us in by saying, “seize the day before your dreams go up in smoke”). These interviews are, believe it or not, even weirder than the performances themselves. Yes, it is horrifying to watch a giant rabbit in a straitjacket doing leaps while speaking in a shifted pitch.

But the most unsettling part of Fox’s The Masked Singer isn’t the coterie of furry friends—it’s the talent pool, on both sides of the judging table. You’ve got a washed host in Nick Cannon, who, when not making wide-eyed looks of feigned wonderment, takes jabs at his ex-wife, Mariah Carey. Then there are the judges: Ken Jeong, who is of Korean descent, does most of the comedic heavy-lifting (by the way, he just appeared in a pig mask singing Radiohead’s “Creep” on The King of Mask Singer, a fitting song choice for the way he acted toward the sexy alien on last week’s episode of The Masked Singer). Jeong is surrounded by panelists picked from career purgatory, including Robin Thicke, who probably needs to make back “Blurred Lines” lawsuit money; the Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger, who probably deserves better; and Jenny McCarthy, who has put a pause on her antivaccination agenda to insinuate on the show that Barack Obama has entered the competition wearing a pineapple costume. That pineapple, by the way, turned out to be the aforementioned stoner Tommy Chong, which makes us wonder: What other random-ass celebrities are behind those masks? (Really loving the panel’s high-profile guesses like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Keep them coming.)

On the other hand, Korean contestants have included A-listers, from both older generations and current idol groups (the Korean talent pool is far smaller and thus easier to book). Beyond that, there’s an exciting sense of talent discovery in The King of Mask Singer that made a show like American Idol so popular. In 2016, BTS member Jungkook competed as his alter ego, Fencing Man. BTS was already pretty famous in Korea back then, but not yet meteorically so, and his appearance seemed like the promise of the next big thing.

TV producer Sebastian Lee, who brought The Good Doctor stateside, recently told IndieWire that Fox likely green-lit The Masked Singer after seeing Ryan Reynolds’s shocking appearance as a unicorn singing “Tomorrow” from Annie on the Korean version.

It’s too early to tell, but it seems highly unlikely that anyone near Reynolds’s star caliber will appear on The Masked Singer. Reynolds’s appearance was a sort of “when in Rome” situation, following a tradition of Hollywood A-listers who have done ridiculous things on Korean reality shows to promote new movies (for recent examples, see: Tom Cruise on Running Man or Jack Black on Infinite Challenge). As for the judging table on the Korean show, there are about a dozen panelists—some constant fixtures, some guest appearances—consisting of a mix of mostly musicians and comedians. The comedians, frequent faces of variety shows, have excellent chemistry, while the musicians showcase a perceptive ear for vocal nuance. The detective work from this group is scary impressive. They can tell whether the masked singer is a professional crooner or an actor who’s good at singing; whether the person is in a rock band or an idol group; and sometimes even how old they are based on dancing skill or choice of celebrity impressions. One time, a judge guessed that the contestant was good at sports because of his posture. (He was correct.) Their banter and guesswork is arguably the best part of The King of Mask Singer. Robin Thicke and Jenny McCarthy could never.