As the actual likely duration of the COVID-19 pandemic started to become clear earlier this year, you may recall seeing a series of headlines about TV shows that had their previously-announced renewals rescinded. Whether the issue was that the show required a lot of close physical contact that couldn't be safely adapted for the coronavirus era or the renewal was already a surprise based on the size of the show's audience (or both R.I.P. GLOW, I will mourn you forever), it seemed to presage a new era. Farewell to niche shows for small but passionate fandoms; hello again to the lowest common denominator. And so it is that we roll into 2021 with the promise of a revived Name That Tune (Fox); a primetime celebrity edition of Wheel of Fortune (ABC); and The Masked Dancer, the new The Masked Singer spinoff inspired by a spoof on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Singer fans will find this brand extension very familiar. A host — in this case it's Craig Robinson — presides as a number of costumed performers we are told are "mega-stars" take their turns in the spotlight. With their voices electronically distorted, they each narrate a clip package full of clues about their identity. Then they take the stage to dance live, after which the panelists guess who they are; this time the panelists are actual dancer Paula Abdul; High School Musical alumna Ashley Tisdale; Beverly Hills, 90210 star Brian Austin Green (who can also dance); and Singer holdover Ken Jeong. At the end of the episode, a vote is held, and the lowest-ranked performer is unmasked and eliminated. As on Dancing with the Stars, there is no prize, other than a paycheck and the chance to be on TV for a while... sort of.
Keeping the format virtually identical to The Masked Singer is definitely the smart play; it seems obvious that the Venn diagram of the audiences for both shows will be a circle, with one scheduled in the other's off season. It's possible some So You Think You Can Dance viewers might check it out even if they never cared about The Masked Singer; if so, it will probably be a one-and-done for them, since instead of virtuosic performances of highly trained dancers, this show will only offer them amateur gimmickry. This is especially true in the pilot, which was the only episode provided for critics to screen; obviously I don't know this for a fact, but it seems like at least two of the first five dancers are elderly and/or have undergone orthopedic surgeries that have compromised their range of motion such that their choreography had to accommodate their limitations. That's not to say people who have physical challenges shouldn't be dancing — dance is for everyone! — just that it's not going to satisfy fans who are looking to fill the vacuum left until they can safely see professionals perform live in a theatre again.
The matter of safety segues to one very big problem with the show aside from its content, which is the many, many shots it contains of an enthusiastic studio audience. For a hot second I was horrified that Fox would actually assemble a live audience of strangers to sit close together, indoors — completely unmasked, unlike the titular dancers — to watch this nonsense until a couple of shots made it clear that the studio is actually filled with human-shaped cut-outs; that any time it appears as though the dancers are playing to a crowd, they've been digitally added; and that the cutaways to audience reactions are just b-roll from old episodes of The Masked Singer. (This does lead one to wonder who's voting to determine who gets eliminated each week, but if it's just the crew, that's honestly fine with me.)
Clearly the show's producers, who employed similar tactics in the most recent season of The Masked Singer, have decided that a faux audience is the way to go, although I can't say I understand why. If the idea is not to depress people watching it in a post-pandemic future by showing either a sparse crowd of masked audience members or an empty studio, my response would be (a) I'm not sure what the replay value of this show is, since each unmasking is reported as it happens, and (b) any illusion that this is happening during normal times is dispelled by the sight of the panelists sitting at least ten feet apart.
In any case, the elements that may or may not work for you on The Masked Singer play out in exactly the same way here. Are you delighted or annoyed by video treatments full of clues about a D-list "celebrity" you might never have heard of? Do you think it's charming or insultingly ridiculous when a panelist believes Lady Gaga might EVER be on a show like this? Do you think Brian Austin Green should still have a career, or like me, would you prefer that he leave public life because he seems like a bad person? Are you entertained by Ken Jeong, or do you find him exhausting? Your answers to these questions will likely determine your tolerance for this show, because — and this may shock you — the level of artistry the contestants can achieve while trying to dance with large masks clamped all the way around their heads is not that impressive!
The intro narration for the pilot calls it "a brand-new event in the Masked universe." Jeong has said he would like to try to launch a Masked Comic spinoff after this. I don't think the Masked brand should keep metastasizing, but it seems like this phenomenon is critic-proof. The only thing keeping a primetime Fox slot from being taken up by The Masked Close-Up Magician is decisively low ratings on this thing. Please, let's all ignore it together.
The Masked Dancer premieres Sunday December 27 immediately following FOX's NFL double-header at 8:00 PM ET and 5:00 PM PT, before making its time period premiere on Wednesday January 6th.
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Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.