“The Masked Singer”is back, with its layers of illusion.
The performers (shown here in a previous season) are masked, the voices are altered and the studio audience is make-believe.
“We want to give people something that takes them away from the reality,” Robin Thicke said.
That reality is COVID-scarred. Performers sing to an empty theater; Nick Cannon, the host, was replaced by Niecy Nash for the already-taped first half of the season (8 p.m. Wednesdays on Fox, starting March 10), after he tested positive.
But this isn’t a show that slinks into quiet despair. Like sports events, it pipes in recorded crowd noise; unlike them, it shows the “reactions” of audiences that are actually from previous seasons.
“Big, communal events are what everyone’s missing right now,” said James Breen, one of the producers. “We wanted to keep that atmosphere.”
The other illusions are smeant to propel the game: When contestants talk to the panelists, their voices are distorted. Some go further; to trick the music pros on the panel (Thicke and Nicole Scherzinger), they sometimes change their singing style.
“It’s become part of the game,” Thicke said. “They want to go as long as they can, … so they want to throw us off.”
Well … most want to keep going. This past fall, Mickey Rourke stopped during his only song and unmasked himself. “He just didn’t want to be in it,” said panelist Jenny McCarthy-Wahlberg.
The panelists were as surprised as anyone, Ken Jeong said. “We were being told, ‘Just go with it.’”
Jeong has sometimes been mocked by his colleagues, especially after he failed to guess Margaret Cho – who had played his sister in an episode of his comedy series. But he’s done better this year, McCarthy-Wahlberg said; he’s “gone from Ken Jeong Wrong to Ken Jeong Strong.”
The pros – Thicke and Scherzinger – would seem to have a better shot at recognizing voices. “We have good ears,” Scherzinger said, “but our clue master is definitely Jenny.”
Early in the first season, McCarthy-Wahlberg was criticized for saying a contestant might be a Lady Gaga. At the time, this was a place for lower-tier celebrities, not superstars. It included Tori Spelling, Rumer Willis, La Toya Jackson and, early in the second season, Drew Pinsky and Paul Shaffer.
But there were soon signs of top talent. In the second season, that included Daughtry, Seal and Wayne Brady – who won and now hosts “Game of Talents,” at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
That has continued to be on the upswing. Alongside the quirkier people, the fourth season (this fall) included Tori Kelly, Nick Carter, Taylor Dane, Aloe Blacc, Paul Anka and the winner, LeAnn Rimes.
Maybe we could credit the pandemic for some of that. “There was a lot of different celebrities whose schedules actually opened up,” said producer Craig Plestis.
These were people who are usually on the concert circuit. “They miss performing,” Scherzinger said. “They miss the stage and this is the perfect opportunity to get back there …. LeAnn Rimes said that.”
The new season made that clear, McCarthy-Wahlberg said. “There were celebrities this season that were on this show that I thought would never be on ‘The Masked Singer.’”
But not, one assumes, Gaga. Not yet.