A substantial portion of my professional life has been dedicated to finding excuses to experience entertainment that most find objectionably terrible. For twelve years I have been dissecting cinema’s most spectacular failures for my My World of Flops column, first at The A.V Club and now at my website, Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place. In 2013, I also chose to write a book delving deep into the widely mocked fandoms of Insane Clown Posse and Phish. The book was called You Don’t Know But You Don’t Like Me and it sent me down a path that, as of this writing, has involved forty-something Phish shows and six visits to The Gathering of the Juggalos. But, defying all reason, none of that could really prepare me for the masochistic experience of watching The Masked Singer.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this masochistic quest to find reasons to plunge into the kind of abysmal-looking fare that sends most people running away in horror extends to fatherhood. Most recently I became deeply grateful for my four-year-old son Declan and his more or less total inability to delineate between quality entertainment and insulting garbage because it gave me what little excuse I needed to experience the strangely hypnotic idiocy of The Masked Singer.
Perhaps not coincidentally, The Masked Singer boasts a premise that feels like it could have been dreamed up by someone like my son, a four-year-old with a very vivid imagination and no sense of judgment. It’s a celebrity reality competition with a gimmick that’s one third Black Mirror, one third Yo Gabba Gabba and one third GWAR: the celebrities trying to wow audiences and the show’s celebrity judges with their hitherto unappreciated or under-appreciated singing voice are all decked out in elaborate costumes that obscure not just their faces but much of their bodies as well.
To further the mystery/stupidity, the masked singers communicate with judges and in behind the scenes promotional segments via a voice distorter that adds an additional element of surreality to the whole crazed spectacle.
The judges for The Masked Singer are a wonderfully random lot. There’s disgraced R&B peacock/shitty ex-husband Robin Thicke, Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger, Ken Jeong, and Jenny McCarthy. Remarkably, Ken Jeong has a medical degree and is an actual doctor but McCarthy, a woman I know primarily for the scene in the comedy Dirty Love, which she wrote as well as starred in, where her character slips around in a giant pool of menstrual blood in a grocery store, is the one doling out advice to parents on whether or not they should vaccinate their children.
My favorite part of The Masked Singer is when the judges play detective terribly and try to discern the identity of the celebrity behind the mask in a fashion that wildly over-states the show’s ability to convince A-list superstars to put on ridiculous costumes, communicate through a voice distorter and humiliate themselves.
If a masked singer drops that they’re famous for athletics, the judges will adorably and insanely postulate that it must be somebody like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Alternately, if a masked singer lets on that they’re involved with computers somehow, the judges will delude themselves into thinking that Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg is just waiting for an opportunity to really degrade themselves during a convoluted, aggressively stupid singing competition.
Watching The Masked Singer with my family I want to yell at the screen that no, Beyonce or Justin Bieber aren’t going to waste their time being one of the masked singers when they’re already as famous and successful as human beings get, and consequently not the kind of B or C-lister whose agents would even bother them with something like The Masked Singer.
My son likes The Masked Singer mainly because of the costumes. They’re gaudy and tacky and ridiculously over-the-top. A totally groovy pineapple that turned out to be Tommy Chong looked not unlike an Emoji come to tacky, vulgar life but he also likes the music, which is just as objectively terrible as every other element of the show and just as irresistible. I could feel my son and I getting stupider every moment we watched America’s new reality competition sensation and I didn’t mind the feeling one bit.
My son has given me an opportunity to re-experience the wonder and magic of quality entertainment like Sesame Street, Muppet Babies and the poetry of Shel Silverstein but more often it’s given me an excuse to watch tacky pop culture ephemera from the past not despite it being bad but rather precisely because it promises to be so fascinatingly unwatchable.
During Christmas, for example, I took advantage of my Jewish son’s obsession with all things Yuletide-related to watch tacky garbage that resurrected some of the shittiest, tackiest, most mercenary moments of my own childhood, like the 1980s Pac-Man Christmas special, which I watched because it hit me right in the nostalgic sweet spot and that my son watched because he will literally watch anything.
Through my son, I’ve been able to experience an entire half-century of horrible nadirs involving the Scooby-Doo franchise, from the bad old days of Scrappy Doo (my son thinks he’s funny) to the even worse days of Flim-Flam, an even worse, even more offensive late-period attempt to liven things up by adding a child con artist to the mix for The 13th Ghosts of Scooby Doo.
I even happily re-watched Scooby Doo TV movies from the 1970s featuring guest stars like Jonathan Winters, Don Knotts, The Harlem Globetrotters, and The Three Stooges.
I will watch anything with my son simply for the sake of hanging out with him and spending time together. He’s a creature of habit, however, and lately, he’s all about watching a French cartoon called Mouk on an iPhone or his iPad.
It bums me out because his newfound tablet-binging is anti-social. But, more importantly, it also deprives me of one of my greatest joys at this stage in my life: sitting on the couch with my favorite little dude watching terrible, terrible entertainment that connects me to my childhood and gives my son a glimpse of my curious profession and the kinds of utter nonsense that make me deeply happy.