It is in all of our best interests to resist the gimmicky programming cooked up and force-fed to us by greed-driven television producers. Shows like Netflix’s animal-themed dating programme Sexy Beasts or the Gordon Ramsay-fronted game show Bank Balance are TV’s fast fashion: built to make quick money and get attention merely for their absurdity. That said, there are some shows that appear to fit this mould, but then surprise us by being – unfortunately – very good. And there is no greater example than the mystery celebrity singing competition: The Masked Singer.
Originally airing in South Korea in 2015, the franchise has seen remakes in Austria, the Netherlands and the UK (currently on ITV). It has also been hugely successful in the United States, where a host of household names have participated (including T-Pain, Tony Hawk, Bella Thorne, Caitlin Jenner, Paul Anka and Bow Wow). Competitors wear detailed, avant-garde costumes that look like surreal animals and objects (last year’s UK winner – Joss Stone – was dressed as an anthropomorphic sausage and chips) and a panel of celebrity judges try to guess who is inside each outfit based on the person’s voice and a weekly video clip of red herrings and clues. It’s generally known for being wholesome and fun, and ultimately harmless.
Which is why on Wednesday night The Masked Singer US made headlines when, in the middle of filming an episode for its seventh season, half of its judging panel walked out after an unmasking. According to Deadline, judges Ken Jeong and Robin Thicke left the set when the eliminated contestant was revealed to be the ex-mayor of New York and Donald Trump’s former attorney, Rudy Giuliani. They reportedly returned some time later, while Giuliani chatted to remaining hosts Nicole Scherzinger and Jenny McCarthy.
There’s no doubt that Giuliani is a strange person to cast on the show. He has long been a disgraced figure in American politics, and lowered himself to even greater depths during the 2020 US presidential election when he seemingly became the last person in the Trump administration to accept a Biden win – infamously hosting a press conference to share false evidence of election meddling at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, a small Pennsylvania business, apparently having meant to book the upmarket hotel, the Four Seasons. On 6 January 2021, he also spoke at the pro-Trump rally that preceded the attack on the US Capitol building, repeating conspiracy theories and calling for “trial by combat”. Later that year, he had his law licence suspended.
This is not the first time that The Masked Singer US has received flak for casting a controversial Republican. In its third season, which aired in early 2020, the singer “The Bear” – the seventh contestant to be eliminated – turned out to be the former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Her appearance triggered a slew of comment pieces in the American media saying that she should not have been asked on the show. A similar backlash occurred when the ex-Trump press secretary, Sean Spicer, appeared on Dancing with the Stars.
The criticism goes that casting hard-right Republicans on silly reality shows gives them an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves into loveable personalities. Rudy Giuliani is no longer a dangerous conspiracy theorist: he’s just a funny little joke. He can’t be harmful if he’s dressed as a pumpkin or a hamster or a flower pot with googly eyes, singing and dancing to Chumbawamba for one of the Pussycat Dolls. (Deadline did not reveal his costume or song choice, to avoid spoilers.)
But while this concern does carry some validity – especially in the case of Giuliani, who doesn’t just have dangerous views but has been directly involved in the incitement of violence – is this really the most important battle to fight? What serious point do the judges and critics make by placing such huge stock and power in a ridiculous game show? (It’s hard to forget that Thicke is himself a hugely controversial figure.) Giuliani is incredibly famous in the United States and many Americans already hold a strong opinion about him, one that I can’t imagine will be swayed by a TV appearance in a fur suit. It seems unlikely many people will change their minds just because they briefly enjoyed the character he played.
There are other more legitimate criticisms, like that Giuliani will, presumably, be getting paid a handsome fee. It might make sense for the judges, as members of staff on the show, to walk out in protest of him profiting from it. But regardless of the reasoning for being mad at The Masked Singer, we must resist the trick the show wants to play: making a global audience think this is anything more than Saturday night filler or – even worse – making us believe it’s actually important.
[See also: Spotify’s response to the Joe Rogan controversy is weak – but predictable]