The UK version of The Masked Singer ended on Saturday night. It really shouldn’t work as an entertainment format. But in spite of its silliness, it really did deliver, in spades.
Girls Aloud’s Nicola Roberts (in her guise as Queen Bee) deservedly beat Jason Manford (Hedgehog) and Katherine Jenkins (Octopus) in the finale. But, as with other hit reality series such as I’m A Celebrity, it’s the format rather than the contestants that makes the show a winner.
Ridiculous – and that’s why it works
The Masked Singer is a bit like Las Vegas. It’s garishly colourful. It prioritises all-out entertainment and silliness over any higher pretensions. And yet the formula is irresistibly compelling, simply because it commits 100%. There are no half measures. It knows exactly what it is. And it revels in it.
If you haven’t watched the show, the premise is, frankly, ridiculous. Twelve celebrities, hidden in outlandish costumes – a tree, an octopus, a unicorn – sing in front of a studio audience. A panel of celebrity judges try to guess their identity, aided by a series of convoluted (and frequently misleading) clues. One by one, singers are voted off and remove their costume heads to reveal their true identity.
Our kids – aged 12, ten and seven – loved it from the outset. First it was the over-the-top costumes. Then they had fun trying to work out the clues. They sang along to all the songs. And then they oohed and ahhed as each celebrity was revealed to fevered audience chants of “Take it off! Take it off!” (Honestly, it was like the final scene of The Full Monty – but louder.)
The fact that they didn’t know who any of the celebrities actually were mattered not one jot. They were happy to embrace the silliness; the singers’ identities were almost an afterthought.
It took the judges a while to settle into their groove. They had clearly been encouraged to drop as many big-name celebrities as possible in their guesses, no matter how implausible. Ken Jeong’s relentless schtick of “I know exactly who this is …” rapidly outstayed its welcome. (It was a blessed relief when he missed two shows mid-run. His stand-ins Donny Osmond and Sharon and Kelly Osbourne were altogether more sane and watchable.) Jonathan Ross played the designated wild-card role, constantly offering left-field suggestions and jokey asides. Davina McCall was mostly clueless but she’s still the nation’s sweetheart and her enthusiasm shone through constantly. Only Rita Ora – the one professional singer on the panel – had the knack of homing in on the singers’ identities.
Shaky start, strong finish
The opening double-bill unmasked former EastEnder Patsy Palmer and politician Alan Johnson, setting a low bar in terms of the level of celebrity we should expect. Former England footballer Teddy Sheringham – fourth out – was the last genuine non-singer. But as the show progressed, some surprisingly big names were revealed. Skunk Anansie’s Skin and Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears. Denise van Outen and runner-up Manford. Jenkins’ presence added some serious star-power, as did CeeLo Green. Suddenly the show had a credibility I hadn’t expected at all.
And when the winner Roberts finally revealed herself – even though I’d guessed her identity several weeks previously – it was a genuinely touching TV moment. This silliest of shows had the worthiest of winners.
Why did it work?
For sure, The Masked Singer will return. It achieved solid viewing figures of 5.5-6.5 million per episode, significantly more than its BBC Saturday night rival, The Greatest Dancer. Perhaps more importantly, debate raged on Twitter during its seven-week run, creating a real online buzz. It’s a series whose premise encourages discussion and speculation – a perfect formula for the social media age.
One final thought on The Masked Singer‘s success. I don’t think the timing could have been any more perfect. Cold, dark winter’s nights. Brexit casting a long shadow over a divided country. So many reality shows offer up a wearying diet of controversial ‘personalities’ and conflict. Tall poppies are raised up and then cut down in a tabloid feeding frenzy. And yet The Masked Singer offered a simple 90 minutes of weekly escapism and positivity. There was no sniping between contestants or judges. We admired the courage of the non-singers and the quality of the professional performers. It didn’t pretend to be anything more than unpretentious Saturday evening family fun. And, on that front, it delivered exactly what we wanted – and maybe what we needed.
This was a show that, against all my expectations, became weekly appointment TV in our household. It brought a smile to all our faces. And we could all do with a bit more of that in our lives, couldn’t we?
Roll on, season two.