The Masked Singer, Temptation Island, and the Return of Early 2000s Reality TV

TV Features The Masked Singer
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<i>The Masked Singer</i>, <i>Temptation Island</i>, and the Return of Early 2000s Reality TV

“I can’t figure it out.”— Jenny McCarthy, The Masked Singer

One of the first breakout TV series of 2019 is FOX’s The Masked Singer, a reality show based on South Korea’s The King of Mask Singer. While it claims to feature “your favorite celebrity” performing in an elaborate costume, you’re not getting much higher than B-minus list celebrities with The Masked Singer. That’s simply the case for all “celebreality” shows, such as The Celebrity Apprentice, Celebrity Big Brother, The Challenge: Champs vs. Stars, and even the most successful of the bunch, Dancing With The Stars. But part of The Masked Singer’s weird, annoying charm is seeing its (also B-minus list) celebrity panel suggesting Hugh Jackman, Lady Gaga, and Justin Timberlake.

It’s 2019: No one believes this will happen.

One claim The Masked Singer can honestly make, though, is that it is “the wildest guessing game on TV,” with elaborate, nightmare-fuel costumes used to “hide” the identities of its competitors. (“Hide” is in air quotes here because The Masked Singer also includes video packages based on very specific clues—which the panelists tend to ignore in favor of non-clues—and uses a form of voice modulation that can’t cover up certain celebrities’ recognizable cadences—such as eliminated competitors Tommy Chong and Terry Bradshaw.)

The fun is that savvy viewers are able to pick up these nuances in the first two episodes, when all 12 initial competitors are introduced, while the panel—which consists of singer-songwriter Nicole Scherzinger, actor-comedian Ken Jeong, singer-songwriter Robin Thicke, and “pop culture guru” Jenny McCarthy, whose guesses each week suggest that The Masked Singer has a different working definition of “guru”—still has trouble grasping the niceties going into the fourth. As guest panelist Joel McHale made clear in the third episode with his logic, his steadfast attention, and his frequent notes about the series’ bizarreness, the panel—especially McCarthy—is so glib that The Masked Singer seems to exist solely to be featured as a Saturday Night Live sketch. Heidi Gardner probably has a killer Jenny McCarthy impression at the ready.

Every conversation I’ve had with people about The Masked Singer, whether they’ve seen it or not, is filled with exactly the kind of awe and confusion that makes it so watchable. Actual pop culture gurus—I hate that I keep using the phrase, but The Masked Singer struck first—maintain it’s not a matter of solving the mystery, because they’ve already done that. (Here are my thoughts on the Bee and the Monster.) And every level of Masked Sleuther can agree that the panel is the worst part of the series. Even so, The Masked Singer is the type of reality TV that brings people together in a way you don’t see very often in the age of “peak TV,” a strange global phenomenon that doesn’t make you feel like garbage for enjoying it: All things considered, it’s pretty wholesome.

In this, The Masked Singer recalls the reality TV of the mid-2000s. After the success of Dancing with the Stars, which premiered in 2005, a number of reality programs tried to recreate its success by leaning on the “celebrity learning a new talent” gimmick, from But Can They Sing? to Skating with Celebrities and Splash. (P.S., the Lion on The Masked Singer definitely won a season of DWTS. And the Bunny definitely isn’t Justin Timberlake, but he was in the same boy band.) That none of these were very long-lived had nothing to do with the celebrities’ stature, though—even at the beginning DWTS plumbed the B-list for talent. Instead, their problem was that they wanted it both ways: To exploit the celebrities for attention, then mock them for failing to pick up the new talent. The Masked Singer approaches this problem with a strange amount of heart, though the intensity of the crowd’s reactions suggests it’s manufactured heart.

2019 isn’t just about reality series that feel like they could’ve aired for one season more than a decade ago; it’s also about literally bringing back reality series that had their day in the sun in the aughts: USA Network has revived Temptation Island (originally on FOX), while FOX kicked off the year by announcing the revival of Paradise Hotel. (Though it hasn’t even aired new episodes yet, Paradise Hotel already looks ready to own its trashiness, being from the producers of Love Island and Jersey Shore,) Temptation Island—despite having competition from its better, more evolved successor, MTV’s Are You The One?—tries to reclaim the cultural relevance it had in 2001, but you’d have to be pretty naive to believe that it actually exists for the contestants to strengthen their relationships or find love. Temptation IslandStill, despite being a poor Bunim/Murray rip-off—the series is produced by its sister company, Banijay Studios North America, which produced a terrible (and, thankfully, unmemorable) reality show called Big Fan, which took glee in exposing and mocking celebrities’ obsessed fans—Temptation Island is surprisingly self-serious for a reboot of a reality property best known for as a “guilty pleasure” status, especially given that the contestants are finding that love… with people who are already in relationships. It doesn’t even have the cheesy romance factor of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette: It’s literally called Temptation Island.

The early 2000s were also home to Are You Hot?—a very short-lived series nonetheless parodied on SNLThe Swan, Joe Millionaire, and VH1’s “Celebreality” programming bloc, not to mention parodies like The Joe Schmo Show and Superstar USA: an era of reality TV, in other words, defined by its cruel voyeurism, whether the subjects were celebrities or ordinary citizens.

Why is early 2000s-style reality TV making a comeback in 2019? It comes down to networks trying to recapture this reality TV heyday, a cycle that tends to come as quickly as it goes. (For example, The Swan originally premiered in 2004 and had a temporary reboot in 2013. Would it be all that surprising if there were rumblings of another reboot this year?) The easiest way to rekindle a specific type of feeling or emotion in television—to catch lightning in a bottle a second time—is simply to revisit established intellectual property. So, once the new Temptation Island approached its premiere, it was only a matter of time before the new Paradise Hotel was announced. It’s not even necessarily a matter of viewers wanting these types of shows (and their cruel voyeurism) back, either: Ratings in the early 2010s reality cycle proved they don’t, and that appears likely to continue after Temptation Island debuted to fewer than a million viewers. Of course, that’s not going to stop the networks from trying the same thing over again, hoping nostalgia is enough to win audiences over even if those same audiences have actually moved on to 2019.

Which may explain why The Masked Singer, in all its corny, bizarre glory, succeeds, where a show like Temptation Island merely embarrasses itself. Reboots and revivals are not the Big Bad Wolf they’ve made out to be, but if there’s one thing reality TV has proven over the years, it’s that evolution is necessary for it to thrive—and amid the networks’ strange desire for series reminiscent of the genre’s earlier output, The Masked Singer at least advances the positive, tried-and-true model of Dancing with the Stars in unexpected ways. By contrast, the new Temptation Island, much like a number of the failed reality knock-offs mentioned above, takes a formula no one has fond memories of (outside of an ironic itch for that kind of trashiness) and does a worse rendition of it. As it happens, the series hiding its identity is the one about couples: The Masked Singer knows exactly what it is and what it needs to be in 2019, even though watching it may feel like 2005.

The Masked Singer airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on FOX. Temptation Island airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on USA Network.

Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.