Your host is a disheveled Nick Cannon, radiating bemusement, confusion, and abject shame in equal measure. Your quote-unquote celebrity quote-unquote judges are Robin Thicke, Jenny McCarthy, Ken Jeong, and the Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger, flaunting all the chemistry that quartet implies. Your first three head-to-head matchups are Peacock vs. Hippo, Monster vs. Unicorn, and Deer vs. Lion.
Welcome to Fox’s The Masked Singer, the strangest and most discomfiting reality-TV singing competition ever born. It is American Idol via Black Mirror; it is Eurovision via David Cronenberg. It is inspired by the 3-year-old South Korean program King of Mask Singer despite being nowhere near as weird or (presumably) as good. It is somehow both extremely self-aware and still not nearly self-aware enough. It is, impressively, all sorts of fucked up. “True strength comes from embracing all your vulnerability,” says the mystery celebrity wearing a garish, gold, full-body lion costume and speaking through a voice-modulation device, shortly before singing Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody.” Not yet, Fergie.
The deal with The Masked Singer, a weekly concern premiering on Fox on Wednesday night, is as follows. Twelve mystery stars are forced via assumed offstage gunpoint into donning tremendously disturbing costumes and delivering horror-kitsch renditions of “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” “I Will Survive,” Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder,” and what have you while Cirque du Soleil–style backup dancers undulate grotesquely. (The second episode’s fight card is Rabbit vs. Alien, Raven vs. Pineapple, and Poodle vs. Bee.) The gassed-up studio audience votes for the winner of each head-to-head battle; the celebrity panel chooses the worst of the losers, with one contestant eliminated each week and compelled to remove his or her mask, whereupon everyone pretends to be shocked and delighted. (Fox bleeped and blurred out the revealed losers of the first two episodes made available for review, so don’t bother trying to bribe me.)
Some of these singers are professional singers who can sing; some, manifestly, are not and cannot. In pre-taped introductions and awkward onstage patter with Cannon, the disguised contestants throw out coy clues (“It’s probably been awhile since your mom had a poster of me on her bedroom wall”) in distorted anonymous-alien-abductee voices. Are these celebs actors? Athletes? Talk-show hosts? Magicians? Boy-band refugees? Are we talking C-list? D-list? F-list? Watch Robin Thicke try to figure it out.
Per these clues, the singers fall broadly into two categories: washed stars of yesteryear or younger tertiary-Cyrus types boasting of vague “Hollywood royalty” connections. “Now, for the first time ever, the world gets to hear my voice on my terms,” boasts the red-latex-swaddled and disquietingly erotic Alien, before squeaking through Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still.” (Thicke observes that the Alien has “a Bella Hadid vibe”; Jeong asks it out on a date to iHop.)
A few singers announce that their motivations are therapeutic. Quoth the Raven: “Recently I suffered a tragic loss, so doing this show gives me the opportunity to honor my beloved.” (The Raven does so via Kesha’s “Rainbow.”) Whereas the Monster cryptically announces that “the game turned on me,” and he/she is here to “rewrite my mixtape” and “set the record straight” via his/her spirited performance of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” The celebrity panel deliberates; does the Monster’s vague tale of wallowing in a cave imply jail time? Could it be Chris Brown? Gucci Mane? Justin Bieber?
In these moments, when the bewildered viewer confronts the possibility that this is all some sort of visually and morally hideous rehab project for a pack of #canceled fallen stars, The Masked Singer ceases to be what it’s trying to be, which is a very specific and cynic-proof brand of Totally Absurd. There is just no way of knowing how seriously you’re supposed to take any of this. The performances themselves are usually terrible, usually on purpose, with a distinctly Sia-esque vibe given the wacky costumes and general camp flamboyance, which is established well before the Bee actually belts out Sia’s “Chandelier.” (Quite expertly, in fact. For the record, I am firmly Team Bee, who teases that her singing career began in the 1950s.) The celebrity-judge patter is pleasingly inane, but it’s not immediately clear whether they’re supposed to really try to guess a singer’s identity, or just misdirect and stall until that identity—oh, shit!—is revealed.
Thicke takes the most analytical approach to this guessing game, obsessing over contestant height and vocal tone; McCarthy, somehow, comes across as both the most and the least shrewd person in the room. The Pineapple describes himself as an “OG,” and McCarthy’s powers of deduction are fearsome indeed: “‘OG’ would mean, I think, older, for sure—‘original gangster,’” she murmurs. She and Scherzinger are also the most delusional in that they blurt out the names of people who wouldn’t be caught dead on this show in a million years, or at least this year: Beyoncé! Lady Gaga! Cardi B! Matthew McConaughey! A Kardashian! The second episode clarifies the panel’s role and deductive latitude somewhat; I am being vague and spoiler-averse out of concern that the Unicorn might show up at my house fixin’ to kick some ass.
Listen, all I can say for certain is that Nick Cannon’s disoriented delivery of the line, “That was very … probing” after the Alien’s performance made me laugh for a solid 45 seconds, and the rest of the first two episodes made me cringe for a solid hour and a half. I am rooting for the Bee to not so much win this battle as survive it; I would say the same for singing-competition shows in particular and society in general. It’s The Voice, except instead of turning your chair around, it turns your chair ever-so-slightly closer to the grave. There’s nothing left to do but swing from the chandelier for as long as we can.