A pathetic show on its last wobbly legs
Well, it finally happened. News reports from several months ago teased that the judges had unmasked Rudy Giuliani during the taping of Masked Singer, an event so absurd and preposterous that two of them left filming in disgust. Supposedly this happened in the first episode–but when the first episode of the seventh season of Masked Singer came and went with no Rudy Giuliani, the production clarified that this was actually the first round, not the first episode. They edited the show in such a way that there are several different groups in the first round who all perform at different times.
If that sounds like a needlessly convoluted and made-up excuse to milk the Giuliani angle for as long as possible that’s because it probably was. One of my many grievances against Masked Singer (of which Giuliani is a relatively minor one) is the utter butchering of the competition format. The original South Korean version is exceedingly straightforward. Start with eight singers. Duet elimination. Now you have four. Single elimination. Now you have two. Then you get a winner, who takes on the winner of the last round, with the loser of the final showdown unmasking in a grand finale swan song. This is a lot of singing, with eight unmaskings, so they need two full hour episodes in order to do a full round.
I’m not sure how the American version of Masked Singer is supposed to work from a formatting perspective. The theme for this season is The Good, the Bad, and The Cuddly, each of those descriptors referring to a specific team. You’d think this would work via three-way competitions, one from each team, but you would be wrong. Every given week the show spotlights four or five spotlighted contestants, who they seem to pick out of the teams at random, with one or two eliminations. It’s nearly impossible to bracket the way they set up American Masked Singer, a baffling design choice for a show that started its new season just ahead of March Madness and is quite fond of maximizing gimmicks to the expense of all else.
And this is where the American version of Masked Singer most greatly draws my ire. I’m familiar with the original South Korean version of the show, and it’s a genuinely excellently formatted and conceived program. You have, I imagine, heard stereotypes about South Korean musicians not being “real” musicians because they come from an idol farm system. This isn’t (just) an incredibly racist stereotype meant to put down South Korean music. It’s also a common shallow criticism of South Korean music even inside South Korea. Do their most beloved popular musicians actually have talent, or is it just marketing?
The South Korean version of Masked Singer fairly decisively proves that it’s the former. Part of how it does this is casting a very wide net in terms of celebrities it allows on the program. Some are musicians, some are actors, some are even athletes. We don’t know until they take off the masks. But we always have a surprisingly good idea, thanks to an expert panel of music industry professionals (with a few comedians tossed in for flavor) who show off how much they know by scrutinizing the performances. Not just the singing style, but even the movements are always a huge part of these conversations. The reason the costumes are so cheap and minimalist is in part to allow the performers freedom of movement, the subtlest permutations of which you can trace to forgotten musical trends of decades ago.
Now, if you’ve ever seen the American version of Masked Singer then you know that…this is not the case. Like at all. Rudy Guilliani’s costume was a jack-in-the-box. With the panel not even able to see him moving at all, it’s not surprising they weren’t anywhere close to guessing his profession. But then that’s the other bigger issue with the American version of Masked Singer. It’s quite literally a guessing game. There’s almost no pretense, let alone opportunity, for the panelists to make educated guesses or analysis based on the actual performance.
Where the South Korean version of Masked Singer features full versions of a wide variety of songs for each episode, the American version has extremely abbreviated versions where background dancers and sound mixing do entirely too much. The South Korean version isn’t just minimalist with its costumes. The show expects performers to be able to make the crowd go wild with nothing more than the sheer power of their stage presence and a microphone. The show forces you to abandon preconceptions. There’s no denying that Ha Hyun-woo is an incredible rock star in his album-length run on Masked Singer despite the fact that when he finally unmasks at the end singing his own song with his own band he looks like a total nerd.
With the American version of Masked Singer it’s surprising that any halfway serious singers are still willing to appear on the show at all. The gimmicky presentation, with its excessive focus on almost completely meaningless stream-of-consciousness clue skits completely devalues the idea that any performer who appears on the show is actually talented and worth watching outside of the show. Where the South Korean version of Masked Singer fosters appreciation for a country with long-standing, multifaceted musical traditions, the American version buys into its worst stereotypes. We live in an era where fewer and fewer Americans are bothering to listen to contemporary music, where goofy Lin-Manuel Miranda lyrics are topping Billboard mainly due to an embarrassing lack of competition, and this is our answer to that? A show that makes the entire idea of music seem like a big joke?
By comparison, Rudy Giuliani appearing on the show was a relatively minor quibble. His presence is more a symptom of the program’s inherent rot than anything else, an obsession with cheap gimmicks and a forced atmosphere of fun that just comes off as insulting to anyone who thinks we should ever take anything seriously at all. I can’t get past that hilarious deadpan moment where Ken Jeong, usually such a good sport about his awful guesses, just quietly confirms that no, that’s not Robert Duvall, and that he’s done, and walks off stage. The abrupt change of character on his part is a lot funnier than any of the actual jokes on Masked Singer, a show that will continue to try and make itself relevant entirely on the powers of memes. Though it would shock me if anyone ever talks about the show anywhere this much ever again.