A large deer in a leather gas mask sits atop a throne in a post-apocalyptic desert landscape. His pants are white and furry, his gloves plated gold, and his coat a floor-length steampunk style that allows a layer of gold chain mail to peek out underneath. The look, in totality, is “True Detective” meets “Mad Max,” a sure sign the drugs you swallowed at Burning Man are more powerful than advertised.
The beast isn’t a figure of your darkest (horniest?) fantasies, however; he’s a contestant on Fox’s newest reality singing competition. He’s here to perform Imagine Dragons before celebrity judges Robin Thicke, Ken Jeong, Jenny McCarthy and Nicole Scherzinger. Welcome to the lucid nightmare that is “The Masked Singer.”
The show debuted on Wednesday evening with a simple plot: So-called celebrities in disguise perform pop songs for a panel of judges and a live audience, whose task it is to determine their identities. Not all the competitors are gifted singers, but all of them are wearing full-body animal attire sure to obscure their appearances and prevent you from getting a good night sleep.
Inspired by the hit South Korean series “King of Mask Singer” ― which made American headlines when Ryan Reynolds sang “Tomorrow” in a multicolored unicorn mask ― the show dares to answer the eternal question: What if “The Voice,” but with furries?
Reality television has long been a space where dreams come true, where regular-shmegular people can get rich, find love and become famous. In 2019, however, reality TV is the place of incubus and terror. Take, for instance, the giant bunny with red laser eyes wearing a straightjacket, who crooned “La Vida Loca” on the second episode of “The Masked Singer,” as the guy who once danced alongside a balloon arrangement reading “Robin Thicke has a big dick” looked on.
Nick Cannon is the master of ceremonies for this dystopian circus. He oversees the show’s multiple rounds, in which two animals square off in a mask-to-mask singing battle, only to have the audience vote to put one creature on the chopping block. (Does this voting process take into consideration actual singing talent? Who knows. All the while, the judges are making wild, uninformed guesses as to who the contestants really are.) After three rounds of inter-species singing, the judges vote on who will be eliminated, and thus unmasked. It’s the latest example of hyper-conscious, made-for-internet television, where the potential for virality and meme-able GIFs beats out quality every time. The show could only jockey harder for a Twitter moment by ushering Gritty himself on stage.
It’s hard to know what kind of celebrity would agree to go on “The Masked Singer.” While the judges occasionally toss out names like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé as they speculate loudly between and during performances, it’s more likely the players are lesser-known backup singers. Disgraced dudes on comeback tours and not-quite-talented Hollywood spawn appear to make up most of the crop, along with a smattering of solid singers who must be lost. At the end of the premiere, the audience voted off Hippo, who was revealed to be Pittsburgh Steelers player Antonio Brown. The show used the term “football superstar” to describe him, but another person might say, “Who?”
Let me be clear: I am the target audience for “The Masked Singer.” I listen to the “Phantom of the Opera” soundtrack daily. I voted multiple times for “American Idol” hopeful Clay Aiken that year he should have won. I consider The Pussycat Dolls personal heroes. I might, depending on the day, identify as a furry. And yet, even I was unable to keep my eyes on my screen as this deranged show’s most ungodly moments unfolded.
In the intro package for a furry blue cyclops contestant who’s clearly the lovechild of the two main guys from “Monster’s Inc.,” he stands at the mouth of a cave, staring out onto the horizon. “I’m a monster because that’s what the world labeled me,” he says, his voice manipulated to sound like he just huffed a few helium balloons, as the scene’s color turns to black-and-white.
“I was at the top of my game, but the game turned on me,” Monster continues. “So I retreated to my cave to take a break from the public eye.” The camera zooms in, of course, on his massive, singular eye.
The judges proceed to make sense of the “clues” embedded in the intro. Was the monster incarcerated? Or was he literally living in a cave? What precipitated his fall from grace? Is this a sexual predator preparing to come back into the public arena? Louis C.K., is that you?
“I’m here to rewrite my mixtape,” Monster says, to which Jenny McCarthy astutely whispers, “From the 80s!” Sherlock Holmes-style. Robin Thicke kindly retorts that, actually, mixtapes have made a comeback. “True,” McCarthy concedes, and they’re back to square one. Monster goes on to perform Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Thicke says of the performance: “It sounded great!” Monster humps the air in response.
This is far from the only sexually charged moment in “The Masked Singer.” In fact, this show will probably be remembered as a massive step forward in the normalizing of furry fetishes. What “50 Shades” did for BDSM and suburban moms, “The Masked Singer” will do for furries and fans of The Black Eyed Peas.
“There’s something attractive about that hippo,” McCarthy says in one hot and bothered moment. “Work them hips! Strut that thing!” Thicke says to a particularly shapely lion. He also notes that a unicorn is “slim and pretty.” Scherzinger describes Lion’s legs as being “delicious,” “like Kelly Rowland.”
Indeed, the only person in the recording room who seems immune to the animals’ charms is Jeong, who advises Thicke to stop “hitting on the livestock.”
“The Masked Singer” is the latest manifestation of reality TV eating itself. Its host, contestants, judges, audience members, and hell, viewers at home, all appear slightly mortified that this is where we’ve landed. (Well, truthfully it’s hard to gauge anything about the contestants, but one can assume.) Not even Charlie Brooker could manufacture a scene so jarring as a riled-up crowd chanting “Peacock! Peacock! Peacock!” as a life-sized bird-man in a sequined “Greatest Showman” suit takes a lengthy bow.
And this is the true nightmare at the core of “The Masked Singer.” Celebrity is no longer a state to aspire to, but a purgatorial maze of humiliations. Comebacks and second chances are just additional dead-ends in the labyrinthine limbo of being almost, not-quite famous. Being a star today is a job just as debasing as any other, and far more public.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Ryan Reynolds sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the South Korean series “King of Mask Singer.” He sang “Tomorrow.” This story also previously misstated Charlie Brooker’s last name as Booker.