The Masked Singer Lets You In on the Scam

The Fox juggernaut, with its compelling and sometimes unsettling collisions of truth and artifice, is a show tailor-made for 2019.

Nick Cannon hosts The Masked Singer. (Michael Becker / Fox)

This article contains spoilers throughout the first season of The Masked Singer.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have just witnessed greatness. From the monster.”

It was episode 8 of The Masked Singer, the Fox competition’s semifinals round, and a mystery celebrity dressed in a monster costume—a Minion-meets-Gritty situation, conical in form, with a cyclopean eye, a duo of teeth, and three wiggly fingers on each paw—had just performed a powerful, haunting, and deeply poetic rendition of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.” Nick Cannon, the show’s host, was as moved by the single-song concert as the rest of the show’s audience members were. Talking onstage with the disguised celebrity, remarking on the performance just delivered, against all odds, by a person shrouded in mint-green fur, Cannon intoned, “And now we want to hear from the monster. Deep down, who are you?

That is the operative question of The Masked Singer, a show that is very much like its fellow reality-TV singing competitions, with one notable exception. Instead of anonymous people seeking fame, this show involves famous people seeking anonymity. And they achieve it through disguising their identities within a series of impressively elaborate, and sometimes wonderfully comical, costumes—a situation that occasionally results in things like a two-toothed pseudo-Minion bringing an audience to tears. To Cannon’s “Who are you?” question, the Monster, his speaking voice disguised as a cheerful squeak, replied, “I’m a father, a husband, a son, a brother, and more than anything, I’m a person.”

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.

Part of the commercial success comes down to The Masked Singer’s leveraging of the moment’s mania for true crime and crime procedurals. It invites audiences to solve the mysteries of the celebrities’ identities just as the judges—Cannon calls them “detectives”—do, or try to. It suggests that celebrity can be understood not only as a culture-shaping aspiration, a capitalism-inflected force in American life, but also as a banal source of ambient knowledge. Are you vaguely aware, as the show’s clues think you might be, of Rumer Willis’s Broadway career? Have you, as you walk your winding path in life, somehow internalized the information that Terry Bradshaw raises horses? Do you know, though you’re not quite sure how anymore, that Joey Fatone, in addition to his boy-band career, has operated a hot dog empire?

The Masked Singer makes use of that assorted celebrity trivia—through its costumes, elaborate biographical packages that share obscure details of contestants’ lives, and revealing objects. (Knight’s was bakeware; Spelling’s was a typewriter—a nod to the writing career of her father, Aaron; Willis’s was, inexplicably, a scrunchie on a silver platter.) And so the show about singing becomes, at the same time, a show about the workings of cultural osmosis. During a time of anxiety about shared truths, its spectacles insist that there are things that bind us together, still, even if those things come down to knowing that La Toya Jackson has had pet snakes named Adam and Eve. “In these divisive times,” the judge Ken Jeong put it during one early episode, “it is refreshing to see a lion, and a bunny, and a unicorn, and an alien, all on the same stage—I love it.”

But the show, as will often happen with events that are self-consciously premised on controlled revelation, obscures as it reveals. Scattered among the clues the show shared about the Rabbit—the performer who was revealed, last week, to be NSYNC’s Joey Fatone—were several fake ones, such as a reference to “chicken of the sea,” for example, that would lead one to think that the Rabbit might be Nick Lachey. This could have been an overcorrection on the part of producers who realized that they’d made their central puzzles too easily solvable. It was clear that Fatone was the Rabbit from episode 1—but it also introduced a note of bad faith into a show premised on the notion of fact-finding. If the clues to the puzzle keep changing on you, it doesn’t take too long for you to give up on finding a solution.

But the solution, despite the show’s CSI-tastic premise, isn’t really the purpose here. The judges’ guesses about the identities of the celebrities behind the masks were often wildly implausible (Barack Obama! Ruth Bader Ginsburg!); that didn’t much matter, because there was no real reward for getting anything right, and no real cost for getting anything wrong. Jeong failed to figure out that the Poodle was Margaret Cho, who had played Jeong’s sister on the sitcom Dr. Ken; his fellow judges had a laugh about the coincidence, and moved on.

Those judges included Jenny McCarthy, whom The Masked Singer identifies through its chyrons as a “pop-culture guru,” but who is just as famous, these days, for being a prominent anti-vaxxer. They also included Robin Thicke, who might be best known for providing American culture with one of the more infamous anti-anthems of the #MeToo movement.

Those details—the asterisks, the nuances, the ways fame can be complicated and compromising—don’t really matter, though, in the show’s hermetically sequined universe. Here, fame is the answer and the question, the means and the end. It is totalizing. There are no prizes on The Masked Singer, save for the small trophy awarded to the winner, somewhat anticlimactically, at the season’s end. Exposure, with all its implications, is the currency at play, for the contestants and the judges alike. That’s what gives the show’s platitudes about authenticity their jagged, postmodern edges. “Deep down, who are you?” It’s another puzzle the show isn’t equipped to solve.