Someone is standing on stage wearing a gold lamé pharaoh costume. The studio audience is screaming at the person with the intensity of the crowd that urged Pilate to choose Barabas over Christ. They are chanting, “Take it off!” The judging panel – Rita Ora is there – is also chanting, and you, the viewer, are being car-washed through the scene via editing that recalls the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. A bug-eyed Jonathan Ross pleads with the pharaoh to “Take it off.” Davina McCall, pained, desperate, also begs, “Take it off.” Ken Jeong from The Hangover and Community, is there too for some reason, writhing and screaming along. They are all pointing – everyone pointing, like the final judgement or The X Factor Six Chair Challenge. With some assistance, the person eventually does manage to “Take. It. Off” – "it" being the giant mask on their head concealing their identity and dignity – and we discover that the pharaoh is in fact former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, who at least half of the panel does not recognise. Nobody can believe it.
Thus went the denouement of Sunday night’s (the 5th of January) instalment of The Masked Singer, ITV’s new weekend concept, a feverish karaoke show that sees celebrities perform a song of their choosing while disguised in neurologically challenging costumes, such as “Monster” (a bastardised Studio Ghibli character) and “Tree” (looks like it’s from The Mighty Boosh). The performer deemed worst by the judges and studio audience is unmasked at the end of each episode. The rest are invited to advance to subsequent weeks, until one wins the eternal glory, which must necessarily involve dressing as an oversexed mirrored fox, for weeks on end, on national television.
The Masked Singer is what post-streaming, primetime terrestrial TV looks like right now. Gaze upon its unholy face, and cower, mortals, in its shadow. Normal TV’s ability to get bums on seats in front of tellies at a particular moment is still something it has on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, but it needs new concepts to retain that ability. Hence: a South Korean, and later, American format that’s been replicated across 22 countries, that hinges on the question, "What if we dressed someone from a soap as though they were a character in the film franchise Trolls and made them sing 'Sweet Caroline'?"
The obvious take is that this is television that sends your brain streaming out of your nose. But there's more to it than that. Of course The Masked Singer is absolute nonsense, but as Drew Millard put it for The Outline last year when the US version premiered, “Everyone involved with the show is very much aware that they are participating in a weird and dumb enterprise. It is so obviously idiotic that it does not make you smart to hate it, and it is so obviously aware of how idiotic it is that it does not make you smart to love it.”
Though we claim to be more discerning than our American cousins, the UK loves to gulp down its big, soda stream drink of bin juice with the best of them. Let's not forget that we are the country that created Wife Swap, Love Island and the most notorious costumed scourge of all, Mr Blobby – who was described in a 1994 edition of the New York Times as “a metaphor for a nation gone soft in the head,” and “proof of Britain's deep-seated attraction to trash.” Indeed where The Masked Singer fails is in not being trashy enough; in trying to contain a deeply camp, utterly illogical premise within the tired talent competition format that ITV has wrung all the joy out of over the last 20 years.
The Masked Singer is not bad TV because of its deranged concept, but because the way that concept has been executed is tedious. Part of this is down to the constraints of the internationally franchised format, certainly, but a lot of it is due to ITV’s done-to-death style. The show, like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, is bloated over a 90-minute runtime, stretching something that could be a laugh out until it’s a marathon slog. An enormous amount of time is given to exposition; more still to the opinions of the judging panel, who, it’s fair to say, needn’t really be there at all, at least not as "judges." While Ora, McCall, Ross, and Jeong are fine, why not have a rotating cast of comedians on the panel, to offer comments and guesses at who the singers might be to embrace the concept in a more entertaining way?
There are many Very British nods to how silly the whole thing is – on Sunday’s episode, host Joel Dommett stood next to “Monster” and quipped: “If you’re just tuning in, it’s too late to explain” – but really, what’s needed is the full-throated investment in the concept given on the American version to hype things up sufficiently (Jeong, a judge on The Masked Singer US, came closest to hitting the vibe correctly, commenting at one point: “Right now, there is nothing going on in my brain at all,” which is exactly what I want to hear.) As it stands, it’s really just a batshit concept squished into the general shape of ITV’s usual weekend night fare, when it could offer something entirely new.
As Millard points out, the success of The Masked Singer rests on the prestige of the celebrities – if they’re someone genuinely surprising, the reveal is more thrilling. So far, however, we’ve had Patsy Palmer (a legend, no disrespect, but certainly someone of the level of fame who usually appears on this type of British celebrity competition TV show) and Alan Johnson, making his contribution to the time-honoured tradition of former parliamentarians embarrassing themselves on TV (and coming in second to Anne Widdecombe using the straighteners on Celebrity Big Brother). The UK show’s executive producer recently told the Guardian that it is designed to “appeal to an Instagram generation,” but I am unfortunately not sure that the Instagram generation are necessarily familiar with Bianca from Eastenders, for better or worse.
If asked about the effectiveness on its opening weekend, I’d say The Masked Singer did well – viewing figures were around 5.5 million and people were talking about it on Twitter. But the concept can only go so far: it has to also keep us entertained. This is where, with one too many former boyband members and an ITV format we’ve seen again and again, it might struggle.