It’s half Stars in Their Eyes and half the monsters from Labyrinth, and it might be the most bizarre reality TV show ever – and we need it here.
Have you ever felt empty inside? Like there’s a chasm in your chest so big tourists would take photos of it? A hole that is often filled but never full? An absence that’s been there ever since the glory days of modern gladiators like Ben Lummis and Michael Murphy duelling it out every week on the family telly?
I may have a solution. Aotearoa has had raging success recently adapting some of the most popular reality shows from abroad: Married at First Sight, The Block, The Great British Bake Off. The success of these has seen a reality TV renaissance here born out of the ashes of The GC and Celebrity Treasure Island. Reality shows like MAFS and Bake Off became instant successes where other reality shows failed because they were proven international concepts, the US or UK versions of which already had fame and a following in NZ through the internet. They had the also had savvy marketing teams that knew how to galvanise the masses on a weekly basis via social media, building characters and mythos around these ordinary people in strange situations.
But as much joy as home renovation and sexy strangers being mean to each other brings, there’s a purity in a singing competition that is unmatched. So I present to you, all the way from South Korea, via a lucrative detour in America, The Masked Singer.
The Masked Singer, fresh off a surprisingly successful first season in the US, is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s American Idol if the show runners were William Burroughs and the costume designer for The Holy Mountain. The show features 12 disguised celebrities singing, often with voice-disguising modulators, in a bid for ultimate supremacy. Characters include but are by no means limited to: a deer, an alien, a hippo, a pineapple, and a poodle.
They face off in a good ol’ singing competition every week and it’s up to the audience at home and the judges – who range from the problematic (Robin Thicke of ‘Blurred Lines’ fame) to the super-problematic (Jenny McCarthy, famous anti-vaxxer) to the crusher of dreams (Nicole Scherzinger: we’ll never forget what you did to Rachel Crowe) – to guess who’s behind the mask as a contestant is eliminated each week.
In the US season the deceptively smooth-voiced T-Pain took out the title dressed as ‘Monster’. I didn’t see his acceptance speech but I assume he compared the honour to the time he won a Grammy.
It might sound like The Masked Singer‘s concept and execution would generate a existential dread, but I found myself revelling in the absurdity of these warbling masked maniacs. In my 27 trips around the sun on this crazy, flat earth, I never once thought I’d see former NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw, dressed as in a deer gimpsuit, singing ‘Thunder’ by Imagine Dragons.
When Nicole Scherzinger and Robin Thicke were arguing over whether the Poodle was really Chelsea Handler or Judge Judy, I suprised myself by not reaching for the bottle of bleach located conveniently close to the couch. Instead I found myself yelling at the screen “No you idiots! It’s Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg!” I never expected to become as emotionally involved in this journey to the depths of humanity, but here I am. Staring into the void has never been so much fun.
It’s one thing to see washed up/B-List/C-List celebrities debasing themselves in a singing show for one last moment in the limelight. But once they’re in costume their identities are hidden, their pasts and baggage gone. It’s just them, the stage, the crowd and 10kg of whatever’s in the dress up box. It’s so easy to share in their sense of freedom when, for those three minutes, they aren’t Tommy Chong, 70s Stoner Comic – they’re ‘the Pineapple’. Why be Tori Spelling, former teen sensation and star of Scary Movie 2, when you can be the ‘Unicorn’?
Just as endearing are the judges turned amateur PI’s. They poke and prod at every clue, dissecting every hint, in their attempts to unmask the singers, Scooby Doo style. Except Daphne, Fred and the gang always nailed it, whereas, despite probably having the producer’s notes on their desk, the judges make a point of getting it wrong in spectacular fashion (Jenny McCarthy thought the Pineapple was Barack Obama… because it was wearing a Hawaiian shirt).
Adding a mystery element to a singing competition isn’t anything new – it’s the entire premise of international sensation The Voice. But The Masked Singer takes that element and pushes it to its Lynchian limits and I for one am here for it.
So I’m calling on broadcasters/content-providers/eccentric billionaires/anyone to bring this bundle of ecstasy and madness to our shores. As a nation we have an uncanny knack of taking international reality TV concepts and make them our own, for better or worse, and this is the perfect opportunity for us to do it again. No other country has the ability and propensity to lionise obscure celebrities like we do – that Nek Minnit guy is currently on literal billboards around Wellington. Think of the joy that will be sparked, think of the smoko room conversations and conspiracies about who’s behind the garish, haunting costumes:
“Who’s that singing ‘Anchor Me’ dressed as a Takahē? Is it Taika Waititi?”
Uh uh, it’s former NZ Bachelor Zach/Jordan (they’re the same person, prove me wrong).
“What about the giant tuatara with sunglasses rapping Fast Crew’s ‘I Got’ with a cartoon helium voice? Is it Lorde?”
Na, it’s Alison the Briscoes Lady.
“That tear jerking techno rendition of ‘Whakaaria Mai’? Is it Jacinda Ardern?”
Guess again! It’s constitutional law expert Sir Geoffrey Palmer!
Aotearoa needs a show like this in our lives. Every night I pray at the altar of NZ production companies, hoping they will one day heed the call and bring this sensation to me, to us. Let us sit in wonder, slowly realising the real masks aren’t the glittery hippo or the BDSM deer – they’re the masks we all wear in everyday life. Through The Masked Singer NZ we’ll finally discard those masks and bathe in the freedom that these anthropomorphic nightmares made. And, as Ben Lummis said, you can’t take that away.