The Strange Success of 'The Masked Singer'

Around this time last year, I resigned myself to watching a new show on Fox after being subjected to a multitude of flashy commercials. The Masked Singer promised a spectacle full of elaborate anthropomorphic costumed characters, a blind singing competition, and as many celebrities as they could convince to participate. This strange concoction of elements left me confused; did I just witness the most innovative new reality show on television or the biggest flop of the year? 


Today, The Masked Singer is going strong. Every season, the show brings a new cast of mystery celebrities to compete in cartoony costumes, ranging anywhere from a steampunk fox to a smiling banana. Before each performance, the audience is shown a package filled with clues about the singer’s identity. These bits are filled with trippy imagery and are narrated by the celeb’s distorted voice. The performances are interesting, to say the least. It is bizarre watching these creatures sing, some of whom clearly are trained professionals, and others... not so much.


The judges (Ken Jeong, Robin Thicke, Jenny McCarthy, Nicole Scherzinger, and often a guest) then get to deliberate and guess who they think is under the mask. Ken is always totally off. At the end of the night’s performances, host Nick Cannon instructs the audience to vote for their favorite. The loser is announced, the audience sighs, and the judges all get one final guess. Then the exciting part happens; Nick helps unmask the celebrity while everyone else screams “TAKE IT OFF!” The judges always lose their minds as the celebrity is revealed, and audience members struggle to place where they’ve seen that face.


This process repeats every week until we get a winner. Contestants have included Joey Fatone, Raven-Symone, Kelly Osbourne, and unmaked first in Season Three, Lil Wayne. The show is zany and repetitive, but it’s certainly entertaining. They’re clearly doing something right, because millions of people agree. 


Despite having some very mixed reviews from audiences and critics alike, The Masked Singer  is thriving in an era where broadcast TV is being substituted for streaming. While the show is available on Hulu, there is an appeal to watching live. The audience at home is invited to participate in the guessing game through hashtags on twitter, and they always do. People seem to love decoding the clues, tweeting their guesses, and gloating when they are right. The Masked Singer then becomes a new type of game show where viewers are the contestants, turning this would-be forgotten failure into a national obsession. 


The Masked Singer shows no signs of slowing down. The seasons are progressively getting bigger, in both scale and prominence. This season kicked off in the coveted post- Super Bowl slot with more contestants than ever. The show has already sparked an SNL parody and an Ellen Show segment, which will soon become its own spin-off. A recently announced national tour will bring the costumed characters around the country.  I am interested to see if The Masked Singer will earn its way into the group of reality classics, like Survivor or The Bachelor, or fizzle out quickly with executives deciding it's time to “take it off” the air.