From the personal boundary-decimating blancmange that was Mr Blobby to a satin-clad Ann Widdecombe being dragged across the dancefloor to the strains of Wild Thing, Saturday night TV has long been built on inanity, ridiculousness and highly disconcerting fever dream sequences. But this month the schedules are destined to become that little bit more hallucinatory thanks to The Masked Singer, a show that makes that time Dale Winton forced celebrities to hurl themselves through holes in a giant foam wall seem like an entirely rational and restrained way to entertain a nation.
A fur-coated Frankenstein’s monster of a format, The Masked Singer takes a cast of celebrities and conceals their identity behind elaborate and frequently terrifying animal costumes. These disguised celebs then have to sing before a panel of (also) celebrity detectives, who are tasked with divining the star behind the disguise. In each episode, via a complex judging process, one contestant is unmasked to squeals of frenzied excitement. Essentially, Saturday night TV is about to be filled with the sight of a giant rubber duck performing Like a Virgin in a conical bra, as Jonathan Ross, Davina McCall, Rita Ora and The Hangover star Ken Jeong make wild, baseless guesses about the bird’s true identity. And if versions of the show that have already aired in Thailand, Mexico, France or the US – where it was the highest-rated show on network TV last year – are anything to go by, it is likely to be a smash.
The UK is actually relatively late to the nightmare-inducing shindig that is The Masked Singer. In a pleasing inversion of the traditional west-to-east TV-globalisation narrative, the show started life as a South Korean format; now 22 countries have their own versions. Why has this patently bonkers concept taken off in such a big way?
For Jeong, who is also a panellist on the US version, The Masked Singer’s appeal lies in its detachment from reality. “It’s pure escapism,” he says. “In a world where the political landscape is very intense globally, it’s a palate cleanser. There is nothing partisan or political about this show.” By the same token, you could view its WTF-ery as a reflection of surreal times: gobsmacking political developments and outrageous opinions now form society’s bassline hum – perhaps we need something even stranger to cut through the noise.
What’s certain is that The Masked Singer is a traditional shiny floor show machine-tooled for the modern world. It is designed “to appeal to an Instagram generation”, says executive producer Derek McLean. “When you see the costumes, they really pop.” The meme-generating visuals are accompanied by a Twitter-friendly interactive element, with users posting their guesses online in real time and thereby spreading the word. “Suddenly people looking on social media are going: ‘What are they talking about?’” says McLean. “And then they go [and watch] the show.”
The long-term sustainability of all this internet chatter is dependent on one factor: genuinely good celebs. Unlike the obscurities that bulk up the Strictly and I’m a Celebrity lineups, each star has to be recognisable in order to secure that big reveal high – the US version has attracted the likes of Seal and Gladys Knight, while the Korean show even featured Ryan Reynolds (performing Tomorrow from Annie from behind a cardboard unicorn mask). This relatively high-quality guestlist has a knock-on effect on the show’s tone.
“With celebrity comes a lot of fragile ego, so in the US version we were taught not to be too savage,” Jeong explains. “They’re all millionaire celebrities – they may not come back the next week if I’m too critical!” The show doesn’t just ditch the eviscerating critique of baddies such as Simon Cowell and Craig Revel Horwood; the chronically flummoxed panellists don’t really offer any feedback at all. The glossy TV talent show, it would seem, has also had quite enough of experts.
What The Masked Singer can’t get enough of, however, is celeb reverence. The climax of each episode is the unmasking – and the awestruck hysteria that surrounds it. Such fawning doesn’t seem like a very British activity, though: will the show go down as well on this side of the pond? McLean thinks so. “We are British and very restrained but even so our panel was going crazy.”
He is also of the mind that, despite the show’s Korean origins, it fits in with our light-entertainment heritage. “It feels like a very British show – it’s got all the tropes of dressing up in silly clothes, guessing games, parlour games.” It is true that there are shades of classic Brit TV in The Masked Singer; at times it seems like the unholy alliance of Stars in Their Eyes, Through the Keyhole and Teletubbies.
It remains to be seen whether Britain will embrace The Masked Singer in the way other countries have. Will its hair-raising absurdity and bombastic witlessness bring the public together? Can we put aside our differences to brainstorm the identity of the man singing Black Magic dressed as a debonair hedgehog? Will we unite in ecstasy when the haunted bee-doll hybrid finally removes her mask? For the sake of our embittered, divided nation – and the future health of Saturday night TV – let’s hope the answer is yes.
The Masked Singer begins Saturday 4 January, 7pm, ITV