Reality TV’s Absurd New Extreme

How a genre premised on artifice got obsessed with disguise

Stills from 'Sexy Beasts,' 'The Masked Singer,' and 'Alter Ego'
Fox Media; The Atlantic

At a posh bar somewhere in the U.K., a devil is on a date with a statue. The two sip their drinks and make stilted conversation. “I moved to New York to pursue modeling,” the devil says, her horns protruding from the top of her head, her cherry-red cheeks stretching with her mouth as she smiles. “Ooh, I did a bit of modeling myself!” her flint-skinned date replies. The two don’t find much else to agree on (the demon will soon break things off with the sculpture), but modeling? This, they have in common.

Welcome to Sexy Beasts, the Netflix dating show that takes the concept of the “blind date” and shrouds it in layers of latex. The series is a new entry in an old genre that includes The Dating Game and Love Is Blind—a reality competition that, bemoaning dating’s superficiality, attempts to inject some corrective realness into its manufactured courtships. But Sexy Beasts, whose second season premiered this month, has a distinctly absurdist twist. “When it comes to dating, we all go for looks first,” each episode’s introductory voice-over intones. “So in this show, everyone looks as weird as possible.”

Call it camp-ouflage. The costumes of Sexy Beasts—elastic, protruding, disguising every feature of the wearers’ faces save for their teeth and eyeballs—work primarily to be amusing. (Kelechi the rooster has two wattles that hang from his chin and sway insouciantly as he speaks; several contestants discover what happens when champagne flutes contend with prosthetic snouts.) But the getups also have a philosophical purpose, the show insists: They help the daters see beyond the surface, and perceive the people behind the masks. Invisibility, Sexy Beasts suggests, is a means of vision.

If the premise sounds familiar, that might be because it is also the operating principle of The Masked Singer, the disguised-celebrity juggernaut currently in its sixth season on Fox; and of its popular spin-off, The Masked Dancer; and of Alter Ego, the search for “the world’s first digital superstar,” which debuted this fall. The shows’ main pitch is revelation in reverse: They conceal people in order to explore who they really are. Borrowing elements from drag and cosplay and avatars and Avatar, they explore self-expression at a time when people are more exposed to and more isolated from one another than ever.

The genre, in its every-day-is-Halloween excesses, might seem to be sardonic or simply delusional—more evidence, perhaps, of our uniquely whimsical dystopia. But its shows are also engaging with some of the moment’s most elemental questions: about identity; about human presence in digital spaces; about the fate, it is no longer melodramatic to say, of reality itself. Their inanities, in that sense, become revealing. “Who is that?!” the judges, trying to see the people inside the costumes, regularly agonize on The Masked Singer. The shows argue, absurdly and sometimes accurately, that the answer might come in disguise.

A costumed couple in the show 'Sexy Beasts'
Sexy Beasts confuses spectacle for interestingness; its ultimate failing, though, is that it confuses appearance with identity. (Netflix)

If you’re looking for proof that TV’s gilded age will air its share of fool’s gold, look no further than Sexy Beasts. The show offers up such a precise blend of the preposterous and the perfunctory that you might easily imagine the pitch meeting that spawned it: “Hot people … but disguised! As dragons and gorgons and hammerhead sharks!” (Hotness, in this alleged search for spiritual connection, is its own kind of inevitability.)

The formula is familiar: A person looking for love is set up with three suitors. First come the low-key drinks dates. Then comes an elimination (I wish I could keep everyone, but I have to let one of you go), and then more-intensive dates (amusement parks/boat rides/zoos) with the remaining two. And then the star makes the final choice. The contestant who has survived the attrition is crowned the episode’s “sexy beast.”

Most shows of this type will offer the final couple a reward for making it through: a trip together, maybe, or an engagement made shinier with the help of Neil Lane. Sexy Beasts ends each episode with the couple finally meeting, costume-free, in person. But those reunions read as afterthoughts, in large part because the unveilings are not limited to the final couple. Instead, every contestant on the show receives a ceremonial de-masking, a moment when they strut out, restored to their equilibrial hotness, as the other contestants comment on them: You’re so gorgeous! or I had no idea you’d be this handsome.

Where is the “inner beauty” in all these celebrations of outer beauty, you might ask? Great question. Sexy Beasts employs the vernacular of Love Is Blind and similar shows, peppering its narration with the louche lexicon of anti-superficiality: true connection, the real person, who they really are. But it is not interested in looking beyond the language. That’s how a series that bemoans the fact that “we all go for looks first” ends up filling its cast with a series of models. (One contestant repeatedly mentions her core selling point: She’s been on the cover of Playboy.) And that’s how discussions of deep-down discovery build to a climactic … fashion show. “Could you fall in love with someone based on personality alone?” Sexy Beasts asks in its introduction. Its first contestant, a former pro-volleyball player masked as a mandrill, provides an answer. “I am weak for big boobs,” he says. “I’m a boobs guy.”

Sexy Beasts confuses spectacle for interestingness; its ultimate failing, though, is that it confuses appearance with identity. The show talks a lot about “who they really are,” when what it means is “what they really look like.” As frequently happens with reality TV, though, there’s an eloquence to the disorder. Sexy Beasts is a cheekier reimagining of a show that aired in the U.K. in 2014, when it was becoming clear that dating apps, rather than liberating people from superficiality, might instead tether them to it. (“We now browse potential suitors as if we’re looking through a catalog, or better yet ... window shopping,” HuffPost announced the following year.) The current version of Sexy Beasts televises those truisms. Many dating apps claim to facilitate the discoveries of hidden charms and inner truths. Often, they do the opposite: They flatten people into their images. They turn humans into avatars.

Many assumed that the web, when it first emerged, would be its own form of revealing disguise: a device that would help people to connect across physical differences, to get past the surface of things, to feel one another’s joy and pain and truths with a newly direct intensity. It has sometimes amounted to that. But it has also led to failures of vision, to misunderstandings—to costumes imposed, essentially, rather than purposely worn. In digital spaces, humans can become characters, and characters can become caricatures. The things they do can become “performative,” not so much in the way that Judith Butler described, but through an easier alchemy: the assumption that everything, eventually, becomes a branding exercise. That people, too, can be subjected to postmodern readings.

No wonder pop culture is obsessed with masks. “People aren’t meant to talk this much,” my colleague Ian Bogost argued last week, about Facebook and its fellow infrastructures. Nor have we been meant to make sense of so many other people, from such a distance, at such a scale. The sources of the self were complicated enough; add to that, now, the sources of the pseudo-self.

Costumes, in that setting, can be cathartic. They afford that most foundational dignity: to say of oneself, This is who I am. And avatars, those fusions of disguise and display, channel some of the anxieties that arise when humans roam in digital environments. How can we see one another in our simultaneous fullness and flatness? How do you tell the difference between virtue signaling and plain old virtue? What is the meaningful distinction between slacktivism and activism? Where does the person end and the brand begin?

Those tensions come into focus in a show that preaches anti-shallowness only to make hot people over as themselves. Sexy Beasts is an avatar too—of the tendency to look at the seismic complexities before us and reduce them to chipper slogans. The show tosses around the familiar talking points—it professes its desire to help people understand one another in new ways—and then, episode after episode, it reverts to the totalizing gravities of the status quo. “I’m not quite sure about the wedding thing yet,” a winning contestant muses. “But we’ll wait and see what she looks like.”

An avatar performing on the singing show 'Alter Ego'
Alter Ego features people who want to be seen so badly that they’ll give themselves over to invisibility. (Fox)

Facebook, the platform that began its life as a Harvard-specific Hot or Not, might soon be rebranded. The alleged new name, The Verge reported last week, would reflect Mark Zuckerberg’s long-stated ambition: that, soon, Facebook “will effectively transition from . . . being a social-media company to being a metaverse company.”

The “metaverse” is a breezy name for a dystopian thing: “a convergence of physical, augmented, and virtual reality” (that is brokered, in Zuckerberg’s vision, by Facebook). The company’s renewed attention to it can and should be read as an attempt to distract from the latest evidence that Facebook itself is an ongoing emergency. But Zuckerberg, leader of a borderless nation-state, has long discussed his desire to expand Facebook’s sphere of influence into the physical world. The company recently partnered with Ray-Ban to create “Ray-Ban Stories,” glasses that are like standard-issue eyewear save for their ability to take surreptitious photos and videos. And it has been releasing new versions of its Portal, the always-listening video-call device meant to be installed throughout people’s homes. The dystopia is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.

Right on cue, then, comes a reality show about the transactions of virtual reality. Alter Ego is a successor to The Masked Singer and The Masked Dancer (and, more broadly, to singing contests like The Voice). It is a weekly talent competition that disguises its competitors so that their talents might shine through. But rather than simply hiding its performers’ bodies, the show effectively erases them. Alter Ego’s contestants are holograms: characters created to communicate something essential—and aspirational—about the people who give them voice. Aided by motion-capture technology, the human performers do their singing and dancing backstage, with cameras mounted in front of them to capture their facial movements; all that the show’s judges and studio audience see are the singers’ digital doubles. (Until, that is, the contestants are eliminated—at which point, Sexy Beasts–style, the singers reveal their “true” selves.)

Alter Ego is a reality-spun extension of what pop stars have been doing for ages: Sasha Fierce–ing, Chris Gaines–ing, experimenting with—and claiming—new identities. And the show could have channeled some of the joyfulness of drag, with its exuberant expressions of the many sides that make a self. As Grimes, one of the show’s celebrity panelists, asks of the show’s humanized holograms: “What can you be that your human self can’t be?”

But the predominant tone, in this work of manufactured camp, is mournfulness. “I want to be able to stand here and show people you can be who you are,” a contestant named Kyara explains. “And being who you are is just enough. You don’t need to be anybody else.” She makes the passionate speech about self-acceptance, though, as a teal-skinned, mohawk-haired apparition named Seven. She and the other contestants spend much of their time on the show talking about the bullying they’ve endured because they don’t look or act or sound like other people expect them to. (Kyara was mocked for her low voice.) They talk about shyness, about illness, about weight stigma—about what it feels like to be told, over and over, that “who you are” is most definitely not enough.

The performances, which are pitched as moments of triumph over other people’s myopias, can be poignant. On the past week’s episode, Mama Yaya, who performed as a vaguely sea-themed hologram named Siren, was voted off the show. She then took part in Alter Ego’s elaborate send-off ritual: Siren performed one last time, singing Andra Day’s “Rise Up.” After a few bars, she was joined onstage by Mama Yaya herself. The human and the hologram briefly dueted—I’ll rise up, high like the waves / I’ll rise up, in spite of the ache—and the scene was weird and melancholic and actually kind of beautiful: the gulf between how people are and how they want to be, personified. And then Siren dissolved in a shimmering eddy, leaving the human standing alone.

“How does it feel coming out on this stage as Mama Yaya, waving Siren off?” the show’s host, Rocsi Diaz, asked.

“Siren has been such a great shield for me,” Mama Yaya replied. “Because, you know”—she paused, seeming to debate with herself whether to say what she wanted to say—“I’m a plus-sized woman. It’s not easy out here—it’s not. Especially in the music industry.”

The audience applauded. “Yeah,” Alanis Morissette, another celebrity judge on the show, agreed. “You still feel the pressure—and the oppression, frankly—of having to show up visually in a certain way in order to even get in some doors. But if those are the doors with those requirements, I’m not sure I want to be in that room.”

More applause. And right on. But when a show assumes that its performers need to be disguised in order to be seen, what message is that sending, really? Is their invisibility progress, or something else? The show’s artists don’t simply perform as their avatars; they outsource themselves to them. Dasharra Bridges, a.k.a. Queen Dynamite: “Now that I have my alter ego, she can be everything that I have always wanted to be.” Jake Thompson, a.k.a. Dipper Scott: “I need this alter ego, like, more than anything in the world.” Erny Nunez, a.k.a. Bernie Burns: “I need this alter ego because I need people to take me seriously.”

But if Erny the human needs his alter ego to be taken seriously, what happens when the costume—the stuff of expensive TV productions rather than everyday life—is taken from him? What happens when Bernie Burns whirls away, leaving Erny Nunez standing alone?

The Masked Singer works as well as it does because its disguised contestants are celebrities. They already have the fame, the fortune, the success; while the show also emphasizes the struggles they’ve had along the way, win or lose, they’ll be fine. Alter Ego is a trickier proposition. For all its hologram-happy antics, it makes its stakes seem high. The show isn’t featuring celebrities and their brands; it is featuring people who want to be seen so badly that they’ll give themselves over to invisibility.

Emily Dickinson called loneliness “The Horror not to be surveyed”; on Alter Ego, the loneliness itself becomes the spectacle. This is such a sad show. It could have been wacky; it could have been fun; it could have treated be who you are as more than an airy slogan. But it doesn’t. And that is telling. The web might have been what the optimists hoped it would become: an engine of empathy, dismantling divisions and affording people new access to one another. Instead, one of the most emblematic images of this internet-inflected moment is Kim Kardashian, bard of self-disclosure, walking a red carpet in a full-body mask. The disguises, after a while, stop looking like delights and more like agents of a grim escapism: Declining to contend with the world that is, they seek refuge in the one that isn’t.