If you told me two years ago that The Masked Singer would still be airing — and thriving — as it wraps its fifth season on FOX, I wouldn't have believed you. It is an objectively bad television show, a trip into the uncanny that has all the trappings of a reality competition show (there are contestants, judges and an objective of sorts) but somehow never seems even a little real — from its fake audience to the incredible (as in "not credible") ways in which the judges still in Season 5 try to convince us that they actually think the secret identities of the singers are A-list celebrities, as if Barack Obama or Jennifer Lawrence would ever come within a country mile of the show. There doesn't appear to be any actual skill or strategy on display, and the show has never exactly figured out whether the competition is the singing or the guessing. Instead, The Masked Singer seems to justify its existence by producing just enough viral moments that either entertain, fascinate, or fit all too well into the zeitgeist of a world gone mad.
Just in case all of this wasn't already obvious, the Season 5 premiere drove home the point when it revealed its eliminated singer — wearing the costume of what appeared to be the snail from The Neverending Story — to be none other than iconic pop culture figure of felt experience Kermit the Frog. The beloved Muppet had performed the Hall & Oates song "You Make My Dreams (Come True)," was subsequently eliminated from the competition, and was then revealed to both the judges and the home audience (and also the fake studio audience that wasn't there).
Because the person inside the snail costume was not merely a person but a puppeteer commanding the most widely recognizable cloth amphibian in the history of the universe, this became news. Tweets with the video of Kermit reveal went viral if only for its David Lynchain levels-upon-levels-upon-levels of artifice, and the story went through the usual 24 hours of notoriety. Kermit even got interviewed by People magazine about it.
A similar thing happened last fall, when talk show host, gossip maven, and meme machine Wendy Williams was eliminated and unveiled from under her Lips costume in the 5th episode of Season 4. Williams performed the Odyssey song "Native New Yorker" in an incredibly memorable style, somewhere halfway between disaster and camp miracle, pausing every few moments for a spoken aside or a snort-laugh, making absolutely zero attempt to hide her quite recognizable voice.
It was the absolute best-case scenario for a show like The Masked Singer: a moment so surreal and unconcerned with logic or rules that it becomes this lunatic miracle moment of uncomplicated joy. You didn't need to have watched all of Season 4 up until that point. You didn't even need to watch that entire episode. Like a comedy sketch within Saturday Night Live, it existed independent of context and was thus perfect for Twitter. From moment one, Wendy's vampin' was a meme'd delight from Twitter to TikTok, home to this video of a house that timed its holiday light show to Wendy's vocal stylings:
good night only to these Christmas lights synced to Wendy Williams’ Native New Yorker ?? ?? pic.twitter.com/WLqNtyIcIM— melissa radz (@melissaradz) December 8, 2020
Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon happened a little over a year ago, when Sarah Palin was unmasked as the Bear on March 12, 2020. This would have been a story in and of itself for a billion reasons: a controversial former candidate for Vice President was on network television performing the legendary Sir Mix-a-Lot ode to Black girls' butts, "Baby Got Back." Racial implications aside — and that is a tall order given Palin's political history — the timing of this event turned this moment from potential grist for the outrage cycle into a surreal commentary on current events. Palin's unmasking came within hours of a presidential press conference on the rapidly worsening coronavirus situation, the NBA putting its season on hold after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for COVID-19, and Tom Hanks announcing that he and Rita Wilson had also tested positive for COVID. Suddenly Sarah Palin and her Masked Singer vulgarities were no longer just a TV sideshow; as Ani Bundel at NBCnews.com put it, they "perfectly encapsulated our absurdist reality."
It seems rather fitting that The Masked Singer will forevermore not only have a place within America's cultural history, but the darkest, strangest, most crazy-making place possible. Which isn't to say it's ending anytime soon. Fresh off another semi-viral elimination last week — the band Hanson (of "MMMBop" fame) was revealed to be the Russian Doll — the show is set to close out its fifth season next week, and will almost certainly be back for a sixth and probably seventh, ready to come from out of nowhere with the next odd, probably unsettling, possibly delightful new viral moment.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.