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The show has a panel of judges try to guess the identities of celebrities who sing and dance while hidden behind elaborately garish costumes.Fox / CTV

They scoffed. Oh, how they scoffed.

When The Masked Singer arrived on the Fox network at the beginning of this year, the reviews were scathing. One called it, “A prohibitive favourite for worst new TV show of the year.”

Another concluded, “Whether it’s a reaction to the curated snobbery of prestige television or simply a new low in reality programming and its worship of B-list talent, The Masked Singer kicks off 2019 with such low expectations that everything else – CSI reruns, pharmaceutical ads – looks like sophisticated high art in its wake.” And that’s only excerpting from two reviews.

Right, well. A few weeks later, The Masked Singer (now in Canada on CTV, Wednesdays) was the week’s number-one, non-sports broadcast in the United States, and not for the first time. When the first batch of episodes ended in February, the trade magazine AdWeek was declaring that the show “proves that big hits on the broadcast networks still exist.” Take that, HBO.

Based on a conceit that’s been a huge hit in South Korea, the show has a panel of judges try to guess the identities of celebrities who sing and dance while hidden behind elaborately garish costumes. The celebs perform while a studio audience dances, whoops and hollers. There’s a host who keeps on proclaiming that you are watching “the wildest show on TV.”

You’re not, actually. That would be Laura Ingraham insulting people on Fox News. What you are watching is just dumb, chintzy spectacle. Also, something that’s rather wholesome. In a crudely despotic culture exacerbated by everything from the debasement of political discourse to outright bullying on reality TV series, The Masked Singer is singularly benign. It’s only wild in its schlocky spectacle, not in its intent. It’s actually as amiable as all get-out.

The show is just dumb, chintzy spectacle.Fox / CTV

Sure, there’s a cheese factor in the judges and host. Host Nick Cannon is a C-list celeb and as inarticulate as a three-year-old. The panelists are comedian Ken Jeong, actor/model and famous anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy, singer/dancer/actor Nicole Scherzinger and singer/producer Robin Thicke. Only in the strange land of low-grade American pop culture are these figures interesting people. Some of them would attend and judge the opening of a car door, for a small fee.

The celebs inside the costumes – think sports mascots from hell – during the first season were eventually revealed, and included singers Donny Osmond, Gladys Knight and La Toya Jackson, plus comedian Margaret Cho, actor Tori Spelling and broadcaster and former NFL player Terry Bradshaw.

Now, on one level, you could feel contempt for these performers. Are they so desperate for attention they’d engage in this strange, tawdry enterprise? Yet it matters nothing. It’s just wacky and borders on the surreal, given the outlandish costumes and the hints that are given about the identity of the celeb in the costume. Nobody gets hurt, and it all unfolds like a particularly insane version of Charades.

It says something about the U.S. culture that there has been a shift from American Idol, a singing show that made stars of unknowns, to this, a show in which sort-of-famous people hide their identity and sing. And that ”something” it says about the culture is not necessarily sinister or dispiriting. One early review was just one sentence: “The Masked Singer is a deeply stupid enterprise.” But “deeply stupid” doesn’t really apply here. It’s actually rather shrewd to upend the competitive vulgarity of reality TV and present something that’s just a guessing game about who is hiding behind the crazy costume.

Such is the strong appeal of The Masked Singer that Fox was inundated with complaints when the show was put on hiatus to air World Series baseball. Fans were meant to be mollified by promises from the producers that the show would return and sizzle: "There is a love affair that develops between Nicole and Thingamajig. There are tears that unfold and this person’s voice absolutely mesmerizes Nicole.” Indeed that Thingamajig is mesmerizing, but who is it?

Dumb simplicity is why the show is a big hit. It’s anchored in curiosity about who is hiding in the costumes and curiosity is the most enduring of human sensations. They can scoff, but it’s true.

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