TV RECAP: How the “The Masked Singer” Broke My Brain (or… “The Gong Show” Redux)

Every generation since the 1970s needs a Gong Show. Or at least that’s what I assured myself of as my tumultuous grey matter absorbed the latest episode of the FOX hit show that has captured and tickled the cheesy funny bone of the entire world. Yes dear reader, you have read correctly: The cheese fiesta known as The Masked Singer has caught not just a fraction of a particular nation’s interest but rather the entirety of the globe has succumbed to a talent/variety show whose burning question in every episode deals with the identity of the barrage of masked figures – some dressed like the Easter Bunny hopped up on amphetamines, others like a distorted Toucan Sam after mating with Charro on a very special episode of The Love Boat. It’s freaky and groovy and far out and out of sight and just plain old weird and disturbing.  It’s all of those things and more rolled into a giant cheese log and the fact that Masked Singer is ostensibly a TALENT SHOW seems almost incidental and beside the point as enough glitter and rhinestones permeate the proceedings to send the ghost of Liberace into paroxysms of envy.

The Masked Singer began life obviously enough as the South Korean sensation King of Mask Singer before promptly spreading its tentacles across the globe and ultimately landing at the doorstep of FOX, the arbiter of class and elegance that has brought us such memorable pop cultural goodies as Joe Millionaire, Booker (where’d ya go, Richard Grieco???), My Bare Lady and Battle of the Bods. FOX, knowing a good thing, snatched up the Endemol Shine North America produced sensation and promptly plopped it into their January of 2019 schedule where it has since gone on to become a guilty pleasure for many and a great accoutrement to alcohol and drug fueled soirees everywhere.

  The setup of the show is simple enough and the thing that Wikipedia entries were created for: An anonymous swarm of celebrities every week compete musically in costumes as designed from the living nightmares of the Marquis de Sade. The competition is judged by a celebrity panel of judges that run the gamut from Robin Thicke (“Show me that smile again…”), Jenny McCarthy, Ken Jeong, Nicole Scherzinger and host Nick Cannon. In each magnum opus episode, a group  of the competitors are coupled together into competitions where they confront one another with a handpicked song of his or her choice. At the conclusion of the fracas, the judges and the live audience cast their vote and the winner is then safe from elimination for the week. The loser must walk the Mile of Shame and share the spotlight with fellow losers. The dramatic tension being palpable by this point, the losers of the individual competitions face the proverbial music as one among their lot is picked to be booted off where they will then hopefully go on to do bigger and better things in their careers. Think Ian Ziering as the model for this theory (from Dancing With the Stars to BH90210). Of course, said celebrities are not allowed to leave The Masked Singer building until being forced to unmask in front of the world and reveal to everyone just how badly a turn their Oscar and Grammy dreams took.

 The show is also interactive in that it spotlights a series of clues throughout the show that allows viewers at home and the judges to hypothesize on the actual identities of the costumed celebrities. Past celebrities to have slinked onto The Masked Singer set include Gladys Knight, Donny Osmond, Rumer Willis, Joey Fatone and – appropriately enough – La Toya Jackson.

 How The Masked Singer became the sensation of 2019 is simple enough to explain in three simple words: The. Gong. Show.

Chuck Barris, the host of the original Gong Show, prepares to swing the gong for the good of the world.

 If you live your life by the theory that everything in our world is ultimately cyclical and that you need only wait until your past passions are once again in vogue as the great and might pendulum makes its way back around the clock of Life, then the comparison of The Masked Singer to the ultimate in kitsch and cheese, The Gong Show, won’t be too surprising. This Chuck Barris and Chris Bearde spawned ticky-tacky enterprise ran from 1976 until 1989 and was essentially an amateur talent contest with celebrity judges to boot. These judges controlled an almighty onstage gong which they could lash out at as soon as one of the good natured – but oftentimes downright awful – amateurs began to choke on the bone of the tomato they sucked on. And good times were had by all. Welcome to 1976. Or 2019 if you find yourself, like me, inevitably and inexorably sucked into The Masked Singer cheese log. Like I said, things in life, and in pop culture, are cyclical.

 I’m an infrequent viewer of The Masked Singer, although I’ve followed the second season far more than the first, which brings us to the elephant in the room: my click-bait worthy headline for this article which suggests that the latest episode broke my poor brain. While no known brain cells of mine were knowingly damaged and/or destroyed during last night’s episode, I did attempt to ease my transition into the Lynchian world of Masked Singer with a healthy supply of liquid and leafy lubricants. This indeed helped and I couldn’t help but wander as I studied with determined intricacy the wall patterns in my bedroom during a commercial break – and alright, some minutes into the second half of the show itself – just why FOX doesn’t ship out to interested reviewers a care package with enough, ahem, tea to help a brother out. Hey, it’s 2019. I’ve come a long way, baby.

 Last night’s episode – ominously titled Return of the Masks: Group C – dared not only to ask the question of who resided behind the panda mask, but in a move that, well, everyone saw coming, actually revealed to all the world the identity of this mystery man who looked for all the world as if he had just wandered off of the set of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. And surprise, it was the daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, Laila Ali.

 Before the reveal itself, a taunt game of one-upmanship was performed by this week’s finalists. The Black Widow was the first contestant to meander out onto the stage and I’m going to guess that it’s not Scarlett Johansson behind the guise.  In quick succession, The Leopard, The Flamingo and Ms. Ali as The Panda enacted a series of musical performances that would have driven The Banana Splits into fits of apoplexy as they barreled through such songs as Somebody To Love (Queen) and I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Whitney Houston).

 America and its self-appointed judges spoke however, and by the end of last night’s show Nick Cannon sent the classy Laila Ali packing. I have a hunch that Ms. Ali will be moving on to bigger and better things, so there were no tears shed in my household. And at least The Masked Singer is a little more polite than the 1976 incarnation of The Gong Show: Ms. Ali was ushered out of the building not with the jarring clang of a gong but with a standing ovation proving that, at least this one time, class outweighed cheese on The Masked Singer.

About Ryan Vandergriff

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