Peacock versus Hippo. Monster versus Unicorn. Your better TV viewing judgment versus your worst instincts.
Fox’s “The Masked Singer” is a reality competition much like “American Idol,” minus whatever shred of self-respect that ABC show has … or ever had. But its contestants are “celebrities” whose identities are hidden behind costumes until they’re voted off the stage, though after Wednesday’s premiere it’s safe to assume the idea of celebrity is fairly elastic on this hourlong weekly series.
Jay-Z and Beyoncé were nowhere in sight as host Nick Cannon and judges Robin Thicke, Jenny McCarthy, Ken Jeong and Nicole Scherzinger watched contestants compete in “mask on face-offs.” Their first loser was Pittsburgh Steeler Antonio Brown after he failed to wow the panel and crowd performing Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” in a bulky hippo suit. Go figure.
Whether it’s a reaction to the curated snobbery of prestige television or simply a new low in reality programming and its worship of B-list talent, “The Masked Singer” kicks off 2019 with such low expectations that everything else — “CSI” reruns, pharmaceutical ads — looks like sophisticated high art in its wake.
The network teased the series as “TV’s wildest singing show!” which is certainly catchier than “The latest sign that we’ve hit rock bottom and End Times are near!” But both could be true. The program, with its gyrating hippo and gold-sheathed lion, became the top-rated series premiere of 2018-19 so far, tying the “This Is Us” season opener and amassing 9.4 million viewers.
The costumes are also apocalyptic — a deer with a gas mask for a snout, a starched, clinical-white unicorn — and feverishly zany à la Sid and Marty Krofft. For example, Peacock is scary but Monster is a fuzzy, endearing fellow with one eye who delivered a soulful rendition of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” despite having just two teeth and no discernible neck.
Before each cloaked contestant performs they are introduced with a video that reveals “The Clues.” They offer hints to their true identity while their speaking voice is disguised with what sounds like a healthy does of helium.
Peacock said he’s been on stage since childhood, may have graced a poster on your mom’s wall and was friends with Michael Jackson. After he strutted on stage in a feathery plume and began to belt “The Greatest Show,” the wildly imaginative panel of judges guessed he was Hugh Jackman or Zac Efron, both of whom starred in the song’s film of origin, “The Greatest Showman.” (“Peacock, your voice is like butter!”) exclaimed one panelist. Another inexplicably suggested he might be Jimmy Kimmel.
My guess: It’s Donny Osmond under all those colorful plumes. Unless it’s Joey Fatone. Resistance is futile. So much for pursuing higher aspirations in the new year. Performers only unmask when one is voted off the show at the end of each episode, or if they ultimately win the competition at the end of the season.
The Who’s single “Who Are You” was used as the show’s opening music Wednesday. It’s doubtful Pete Townshend envisioned such usage of the track when he wrote it in the late 1970s after a night of drinking with the Sex Pistols. Roger Daltrey might question why anyone would dress like a pineapple before performing a pop song (something to look forward to in a forthcoming episode). But it’s unlikely they’ll ever appear on the show, which was adapted from an Asian TV competition in which famous contestants also checked their dignity at the door.
Cannon asked after each set, “Who do you think is behind the mask?” Audiences were advised to tweet #TheMaskedSinger and choose #PeacockMask or #HippoMask, #DeerMask or #LionMask. No word yet if more folks voted Wednesday night than in the midterms, but absurd animal costumes may be the next step in motivating the electorate.
The identities of “Masked” contestants are supposed to be TV’s best-kept secret unless you live on the West Coast and get your broadcast three hours after the East Coast has debated whether Lion is Lady Gaga or a member of Destiny’s Child. And OMG, Hippo is not Allen Iverson!
The show’s panelists are the most entertaining aspect of the bizarre spectacle when they shoot high in gradings on the celebrity scale when estimating who’s under the rack of antlers or giant insect head. Lady Gaga? Madonna? Mariah Carey? Chris Brown? Peyton Manning?
It’s more likely that the great reveal will be of the Flavor Flav or “The Bachelorette” variety. Unless Oprah really is considering a 2020 presidential bid now that bad reality competitions have proved to be the most direct path to the White House.
Wednesday night, the audience shouted “Take it off! Take it off!” after Hippo was voted off the show and it was time for the great reveal. He lifted the giant headpiece and underneath was a grinning Antonio Brown. Not exactly Tom Brady or Matthew McConaughey or John Legend, but the crowd and panelists feigned such surprise it may as well have been Nelson Mandela back from the grave.
But why shoot high when keeping the bar low, and the mask on, garners more attention?
‘The Masked Singer’
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Rated: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)