These imperfect times have spawned the perfect TV show
On Wednesday night, millions awaited in breathless anticipation to see — no, not the president’s speech on the coronavirus — but whether The Astronaut, The Bear, Night Angel, The Rhino, The Swan or The T-Rex would be beheaded — and, worse, have their chances end of winning the most meaningless title among television’s treasure trove of meaningless titles.
Yes, even receiving the final rose (and marriage proposal) from “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette” has more intrinsic value than surviving the guillotine gauntlet known as “The Masked Singer.”
And yet ...
There is high-brow entertainment, low-brow entertainment, guilty pleasures, movies and music and books that you like (but don’t dare tell anyone), and movies and music and books that you say you like (but have never seen or heard).
To all that, “The Masked Singer” — Fox’s cult-hit reality singing competition show — refuses to play along, steadfast in its defiance of categorization, as its transfixed fanbase chants menacingly in the background:
“Take it off ... take it off ... TAKE IT OFF!”
Oops, there goes The Bear, popping their human-size puppet head — OMG, it was Sarah Palin under the mask, who had given a solid performance of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” — to the excitement of the studio audience and canned astonishment of the show’s panel of judges (more on them in a bit).
There’s so much to dissect here ... but let’s start with the phrase “reality singing competition show.”
Of those four words, the only one that truly applies is “show.” Where else could you see a guy singing “Achy Breaky Heart” while dressed as a banana ... excuse me, The Banana? (I flashed back during this performance to Dustin Hoffman, describing in “Tootsie” how he delayed the filming of a commercial wherein he played a tomato — because tomatoes can’t move.)
The costumes are so over-the-top that they have their own spiritual beauty. Season 2’s troika of The Black Widow, The Ladybug and The Butterfly were haunting, while I’m certain I once saw The Skeleton during a dorm party in college after ingesting a suspicious, homemade muffin.
“The Masked Singer” moves at a ridiculous pace — with very little of the filler between musical numbers that stops the momentum of shows such as “The Voice” or “American Idol.” And that’s important, because the series is clearly aimed at a society that doesn’t waste much time on such old-fashioned notions as critical thinking or artistic evaluation.
Besides, part of the show’s charm is watching from home and, when the celebrity is revealed, having no idea why they’re famous.
There is no “competition” in this show. Viewers can’t vote from home. Which contestants get their blocks knocked off comes down to the votes of those seated in the studio during filming. No vote totals are announced, either, which leads to one of the more coherent conspiracy theories making the rounds.
More than one eliminated singer has said they didn’t know how much longer they could wear the get-ups and perform. The theory goes that some stars are interested in being on the show, but only if they can be sent home early.
This season, for instance, there was no way any rational person could think that The Robot’s rendition of Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” was deserving of the fewest votes in the first round of Group A (I’d explain the rules here, but what’s the point?) — particularly after seeing the abomination that was The White Tiger’s warbling of the Vanilla Ice standard “Ice Ice Baby.”
(Actually, that’s unfair — not to Vanilla Ice, but to warblers ... who have a very pleasant sound.)
Yet, when The Robot obeyed the “Take it off!” chant and removed its head (with the help of the show’s underrated host, Nick Canon), it was rap legend Lil Wayne under the mask — just the sort of A-lister who might have wanted to do the show as a goof for his kids, but perhaps not without a wink-wink agreement to exit early. He’s not a sucker for that much pain.
Which brings us to the singing. You know what masked contestants, besides Lil Wayne, won’t be known as the winner of The Golden Mask? Consider this list: Gladys Knight, Donny Osmond, Patti LaBelle, Michelle Williams (of Destiny’s Child), Seal, Chris Daughtry, Chaka Kahn and Dionne Warwick.
One thing is clear: The performance on stage that is seen by the TV audience doesn’t match the visceral experience of those who are voting (or, you know, a preexisting agreement with the producers). The costumed characters who fare best are those who make a connection with the audience.
Take, for instance, the aforementioned vanquisher of Lil Wayne/Robot ... The White Tiger. Large, gregarious, and clearly there to party, the too-out-of-tune-for-autotune fan favorite even momentarily stopped singing during his performance of Queen’s “We Will Rick You” — perhaps forgetting the words to the refrain? — but still managed to stay alive that night as Chaka Kahn was sent home, because the audience loves his shtik.
Who’s behind The White Tiger mask? (SPOILER ALERT for those of you who have side bets on such things.) ... Well, he has the body a football player, has hints in his “clue packages” to iconic New England items, and there was a poster behind him at one point showing a COW on a SKI.
No, it’s not Bill Belichick.
Whatever you do, don’t tell the esteemed panel of superstar judges ... wait, I can’t keep going until I stop laughing ... if somehow you have deciphered my parsing of the hints. The last thing you, or I, or “The Masked Singer” needs is for Robin Thicke, Jenny McCarthy, Ken Jeong or Nicole Scherzinger to look like they know what they’re talking about in their judges’ box.
Either the continually confounded quarter has mastered a unique genre of performance art, or they are the last four people you’d want with you enclosed in one of those Escape Rooms. They’ve combined to guess that Jamie Foxx is the hidden celebrity so often that I thought they were going to do so when Foxx was seated next to them as a guest judge.
All of which makes “The Masked Singer” the cure for what ails us — well, not for the coronavirus. I’m talking more on a spiritual level.
It is what it is and, more than that, it proudly is what it is. For an hour each week, you can sit back, relax and not worry that anything tangible is at stake or that any messages will pound you into submission.
These days, that’s enough of a win for me.
Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin told anyone who would listen at email@example.com that Tom Bergeron was The Taco.