On Wednesday evening, viewers found out what that meant: The celebrity in disguise as the Monster was … T-Pain. During The Masked Singer’s Season 1 finale, the rapper, singer, songwriter, and producer ultimately defeated the show’s runner-up, Donny Osmond (the Peacock), and its second-runner-up, Gladys Knight (the Bee), to claim a mask-shaped trophy. With the win, T-Pain also proved the same thing that all 12 of the show’s celebrity contestants had set out to make clear. He is more—more talented, more multifaceted, more complicated—than many have previously assumed him to be.
Many reality shows, competition-based and otherwise, revolve around a soft-lit version of a noble lie. They ask viewers to suspend disbelief, to think that maybe the romance that blossoms along with the roses on The Bachelor really is genuine, or that the rivalries that bring the drama to the Real Housewives franchise are more than merely performative. The Masked Singer inverts all that, because it treats the lies of reality-as-a-genre not as open secrets, but rather as premises. The artifice, here, is the point.
Early on in The Masked Singer’s competition, Tori Spelling, her identity obscured by the layers of her corset-and-hoop-skirted Unicorn costume, her voice transformed into a high-pitched squeak, tells the audience, “By putting on this mask, I am showing myself and the next generation of unicorns that true magic comes from within—all you have to do is believe.” She goes on to sing Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” In the several absurdities contained in that moment—myths woven and wrapped and layered so assiduously that it becomes difficult to tell where the joke ends and the truth begins—there’s a kind of insight.
The Masked Singer, an Americanized remake of the South Korean show The King of Mask Singer, works like this: 12 celebrities, of slightly varying levels of fame, don elaborate, identity-concealing costumes—a rabbit, an alien, a hippo, a pineapple, a lion—that are tailored to their offstage personas. They perform songs, American Idol–style, for a studio audience and a panel of judges who themselves vary in celebrity. Each week, the judges try, and quite often fail, to guess the identity of the performer inside the costume. And each week, the lowest-performing member of the cast, as determined by the votes of the audience and the judges, leaves the show. It’s a game of attrition, with musical talent alone meant to serve as the primary deciding factor. Before departing, the performer’s identity—via a ceremonial unmasking that involves a rendition of The Who’s song “Who Are You?” (“WHO, who, WHO, who?”), and the audience and judges chanting “Take! It! Off!”—is revealed.
The American show, with its Hunger Games aesthetic and its CSI appeal, has proved to be a ratings juggernaut. It has spawned Reddit threads and podcast segments and “What We Know So Far” summaries on E. It is a weird, often compelling, occasionally horrifying collision of grotesquerie and profundity. It asks questions not merely of the Whooooooo are you? variety, but also about celebrity and anonymity and commercialism and Erving Goffman’s theories of self-presentation and Neil Postman’s theories of triviality and the expanding meaning of camp. The whole thing, with its elaborate artifice, its feral chants, and its absence of stakes, has a distinctly fall-of-the-Roman-Empire feel. It is 2019 in a nutshell, pretty much, if the nutshell were to stride onstage and perform a rendition of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” while dressed as a crazed rabbit. Fox has already renewed the show for a second season.