“Oh blind, oh ignorant, self-seeking cupidity which spurs as so in the short mortal life and steeps as through all eternity.” —Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
If you want a reminder about how long a year can really feel, remember that The Masked Singer has been in our lives only since the beginning of 2019. (The American version, at least; the original Korean version of the show has been around since 2015.) And yet, the Fox singing competition series has the kind of cultural ubiquity rarely seen within a fractured television landscape. Few programs nowadays could be subject to water-cooler talk—but it seems a series in which C-list celebrities wearing costumes molded in Satan’s hellfire has the potential to be one of them. The Masked Singer’s first season was a lot of things: an instant ratings phenomenon, a well-deserved PR makeover for the oft-derided Auto-Tune king T-Pain, incidental sponcon for Black Mirror, and a blog boy’s worst nightmare. Now, folks, it’s back. I wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs—and Nick Cannon wondering whether I’ve picked up on any clues.
As any empty-calorie program that becomes a breakout hit is wont to do, the second season of The Masked Singer is going bigger. Whereas the first season had 12 contestants, this time they’re bumping it up to 16. Cannon assures the audience that the clue packages for each singer are going to be much harder to decipher. (For the most part, guessing the identity of the contestants in Season 1 was super easy if you knew how to Google the right things.)
The competition itself is staying largely the same, with one exception: When the episode whittles down to the bottom two contestants, they compete in a “smackdown.” The “smackdown” is basically a rap battle, but with singing, and instead of using the studio audience the loser is voted on by the “celebrity” judge panel of Robin Thicke, anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy, Ken Jeong, and Nicole Scherzinger. It appears the show opted to go with “smackdown” to work some Fox corporate synergy: both times a “smackdown” happened in Wednesday night’s two-hour premiere, a chyron promoting WWE’s SmackDown, which also airs on the network, popped up.
And the contestants themselves are new—not just the humans behind the masks, but also the designs for the characters, which are, all jokes aside, inarguably unique. The characters span a broad range of looks, from the adorable (like T-Pain as the Monster last season) to the nightmarish (Terry Bradshaw as the Deer looked like he was auditioning for a David Lynch film). Of the eight contestants unveiled in the premiere—Butterfly, Thingamajig, Skeleton, Egg, Ice Cream, Tree, Ladybug, Rottweiler—I felt a particular affinity for the Egg, because he looked like some weird couture Young Pope. His hat had a yolk, which was dope. On the other end of the spectrum was Thingamajig, a … Thingamajig whose clue montage was clearly manufactured during an LSD trip by the folks over at Blumhouse Productions.
The subtitles imply the viewers at home should sing along with the Thingamajig; I participated with a bloodcurdling scream in my bedroom. (I’m pretty sure the Thingamajig is known vocalist Victor Oladipo, since it’s implied he’s an athlete; the number four is included in the clue montage and that’s the number he wears for the Indiana Pacers. Dude can really sing.) That may have been the trippiest/scariest montage from the premiere, but we must also give an honorable mention to the Butterfly, whose metamorphosis is not for the faint of heart.
The actual performances, paired with the panel’s [clears throat] trenchant analysis, also displayed fascinating contrasts in quality. Of the eight contestants, six of them were actually pretty good! And even the worst performances of the evening—from Skeleton and Ice Cream—were miles ahead of what we got last year from Tommy Chong, who assaulted our eardrums as Pineapple, sounding like a plastered dude ignoring last call at a bar’s karaoke night. Of course, the Pineapple performance was also memorable because Jenny McCarthy earnestly wondered if the person behind the mask was Barack Obama—citing the fact pineapples are native to Hawaii, just like POTUS—which was a perfect distillation for how terrible the judges are at guessing the singers’ identities. Rest assured, the judges are still, for the most part, very bad at their job. Their most consistent dumb habit is taking very literal interpretations of the clue packages: “‘Jazz up,’ so she’s a jazz-singing cook,” Nicole Sherzinger said about the Tree, offering little hope for improvement this season. “I’m just going to say it: Could it be Mohammed bin Salman?” McCarthy beamed—and OK, I made that one up, but you thought it was real for a second. You know what did actually happen? The Tree shook her jingle booty so hard, she might’ve flashed the audience.
Because this was such a stacked premiere, it meant that two contestants were eliminated. Ice Cream was one of them, and while he wasn’t flat-out awful in his rendition of “Old Town Road,” it’s clear singing isn’t what’s made the guy a self-proclaimed multi-millionaire. Meanwhile, my beloved Egg lost a smackdown against the Skeleton, which was genuinely unfair. (I swear it’s not my egg bias, my brain isn’t that scrambled by The Masked Singer yet!) It seems the panel doesn’t consider vocals—Egg was a better singer, period—as much as stage presence, which the Skeleton admittedly has, leading many of them to guess he might be a comedian. (I’m 99 percent sure McCarthy is wrong to assume he is Seinfeld alum Jason Alexander, but that would be iconic.) The Egg, whose persona seemed to nod to figure skating in the clue package, turned out to be Johnny Weir. Gotta give credit where it’s due and shout-out Thicke and McCarthy for actually getting that pick right.
Ice Cream, however, was a trickier proposition. Everyone seemed to agree he could be internet famous—a YouTube persona, gamer, influencer; you know, something really depressing. But the problem is the panel is so washed—Thicke needed help from the whole studio to remember the term “streams”—that they couldn’t really name anyone from that realm outside of PewDiePie. (We’d have known it was PewDiePie if his clue package involved antisemitism, duh!) Personally, I thought either Jake or Logan Paul would’ve been an ideal contestant; this is exactly the kind of competition they would go for. Alas, it was Ninja—a.k.a. that Fortnite gamer who sometimes hangs out with Drake.
It’s funny ’cause Nick Cannon called him a Twitch superstar, which is apparently outdated ’cause he now only does his streams on something called “Mixer.” But I gotta say, this was the kind of moment that The Masked Singer is aiming for: the most famous gamer on the planet, singing the biggest no. 1 hit in recent memory. A singing competition hasn’t really felt like a centerpiece of American culture since the glory days of American Idol, but you gotta give it to them, The Masked Singer is doing its best to grab the dystopian-tinted spotlight.
Like it or not—I just want the nightmares to go away—The Masked Singer is here to stay. A third season has already been confirmed; we’ve still got 14 contestants remaining this season, eight of whom have yet to compete. We are staring into the abyss. The Thingamajig is staring right back at us.