Who knew it would take a bloke in a chameleon outfit parading the type of man-bulge not seen on primetime TV since Gladiators to restore our faith in Saturday night entertainment?
With Strictly having lost its sheen, The X-Factor in its death throes and The Voice reduced to a phlegmy croak, Saturday evenings – traditionally a time when friends and family stockpile beer and Wotsits to jovially shout abuse at hapless reality TV newbies – have been in the doldrums for too long. Assorted big-budget, low-concept talent shows have come and gone, among them the Gary Barlow-masterminded Let It Shine, Sky’s underwhelming Sing: Ultimate A Cappella, the Ginger Spice vehicle All Together Now and the BBC cringe-fest Even Better Than the Real Thing. Thus, The Masked Singer, in which judges Rita Ora, Jonathan Ross, Davina McCall and The Hangover’s Ken Jeong must guess the identity of fellow famouses as they eviscerate pop classics in elaborate fancy dress, has arrived as a desperate roll of the dice from ITV to claw back an audience sick to its stomach of humourless, here-today, gone-tomorrow talent shows.
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There’s nothing new under the sun in lowest-common-denominator telly, of course, which is why the series, which was born in South Korea before launching in Australia and the US, stands as a hallucinatory collision of The X Factor, Crackerjack! and BDSM-influenced performance art. It hasn’t so much reinvented Saturday night telly as taken it to new heights of dementedness.
Cutting through the January gloom in all its retina-scorching glory, the show has thus far given us a giant yellow duck in a conical bra and pony tail honking its way through “Like a Virgin” – to be clear, that’s a celebrity dressed as a bath toy dressed as Madonna. Elsewhere, a unicorn with a rainbow mane could be seen wiggling a Lycra-clad backside while singing Lizzo’s “Juice”; a fox made of mirrors did sexy dancing to “Call Me”; and a man in a Pharaoh outfit stood with outstretched arms as the audience and judges chanted “Take it off! Take it off! Take it off!” (Remember the “Plug it up” scene in Carrie? Not dissimilar). The mask was of course removed to reveal… the former home secretary, Alan Johnson. This is all perfectly normal.
“Who is it? Who is behind the mask?” the judges are contractually obliged to yelp at three-minute intervals. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, who is it?” I exclaimed while watching another “personal clues” segment designed to drop hints at the mystery celeb’s identity, and wondering if I could really sit through an hour and a half of this nonsense before the final unmasking. It turns out I could and I did.
In the pantheon of WTF Saturday-night programming, The Masked Singer is gratuitously idiotic and, despite calling itself a competition, entirely without jeopardy (only one of the singers is unmasked per episode out of a total of 12, which makes for a lot of padding). It’s awful. Brilliantly, addictively awful.
Clearly, I’m not the only one who thinks so. In the first weekend it brought in 6.7 million viewers – that’s almost twice the audience of the celebrity version of The X Factor. Twitter had a ball, gasping at the outfits and Ora’s relentless name-dropping (“It’s my friend, Charlie XCX!”), and wondering if the series’ creators were all on glue. Meanwhile, celebrities watching the show were compelled to announce that they were not, in fact, taking part – “I can confirm I am not a singing tree,” announced Peter Crouch.
So what, precisely, is the appeal, beyond the creeping horror of disguises involving bees with rictus doll faces and trees with eyes? Perhaps it’s because it’s unusually humane for a peak-viewing reality show. No one gets humiliated, or told that their performance is an affront to music. There are no bleeding-heart backstories trying to manipulate us into giving a toss. There is also the judges’ touching optimism as they throw out superstar guesses such as Helen Mirren, Idris Elba and Cara Delevingne, as opposed to thingamajig who was in Hollyoaks before his career went down the khazi. (Mirren could yet be unmasked, of course, but given we’ve so far had Patsy Palmer and him from The Darkness, some lowering of expectations might be in order.)
Ultimately, it’s about escapism. Gone are the days in which the nation sat down in their tens of millions to watch the same show at the same time – the rise of streaming platforms, and greater choice, has seen to that. But when the world is on fire, there’s apparently no better tonic than watching a show featuring an ex-cabinet minister performing Bangles covers while spilling out of a costume made of gold lamé and polystyrene, and then hooting about it with strangers on Twitter. As for the celebrities involved, they appear to be loving it, horsing around in mad costumes while waiting for their agent to call about the next job. Mindless entertainment? Absolutely. And I’m OK with that.