They had me at "sexy Cactus". Among the brilliantly imaginative and marvellously elaborate costumes created by Tim Chappel for the second season of The Masked Singer is a saucy succulent. She has plump red lips, big black eyelashes, glittery lime-green eyeshadow and pink flowers scattered atop her areoles. Legs sheathed in green tights emerge from her snug, terracotta-coloured pot.
The Cactus is a hoot but she’s been just one of the eye-catching attractions on the kookiest show on TV. There’s a Ned Kelly inspired Bushranger whose outfit has been given the disco treatment, with gold, silver, glitter and crystals. The bright orange Goldfish is a fiesta of pleated silk organza, while the ornate Queen is resplendent in black and gold. Dragonfly has massive wings that resemble elaborate stained glass, framing an electric-blue bodysuit. And the candy-pink Kitten looks like a giant plush toy. In a nod to our Indigenous animals, there was also a lavishly spiked Echidna, although his time in the limelight was brief as the man behind the mask, tennis player Mark Philippoussis, became this season’s first evictee.
Cactus is one of many costumes featured in the kooky singing competition The Masked Singer.Credit:Ten
Channel Ten’s wacky singing contest, adapted from a South Korean format, sees contestants engulfed in these extraordinary costumes. They perform songs and cryptically provide clues to their identities, while the panel tries to guess who’s hidden behind the mask and under the layers of carbon fibre and fabric.
It’s just the tonic during a long, grey and gloomy locked-down winter (I’m in Melbourne), a welcome burst of colour, movement and unabashed silliness. The vicious coronavirus was found to have infiltrated the studio, affecting the filming of the finale, but most of the season will roll out as planned.
The show’s facade of fizzy fun conceals some smart decisions about its structure. For starters, it’s guaranteed family-friendly entertainment. There’s the odd risque joke but nothing to frighten the kiddies or inspire uncomfortable questions for their parents. Andas Green Guide and Guide writer Melinda Houston recently joked, "It’s scientifically proven to be impossible to resist trying to guess who’s behind the mask, regardless of your age." Even casual, rather than compulsive, viewers will know this to be true.
Another of the smart decisions – as well as a short and snappy season that doesn’t outstay its welcome – is that every episode has the reward of a reveal when a mask comes off. So even for viewers who have no idea who Michael Bevan is, there’s the sense of a payoff.
Unlike some of its stablemates in the reality-TV genre, Masked Singer isn’t pretending to be more than the sum of its parts. The contestants aren’t signing up for a "social experiment" and desperately seeking a life partner; they aren’t hoping to win a potentially life-changing amount of money; they aren’t yearning to fulfil a dream, change careers and open a restaurant. They want to have some fun and they like to sing.
Former tennis star Mark Philippoussis is unmasked on The Masked Singer Australia.Credit:Network 10
Also, this is no "zombie format". That’s the irresistible label applied to those reality-TV stayers – such as Big Brother, Farmer Wants a Wife and Survivor — that refuse to die. They can change networks, get revived, get tweaked, sometimes — but not always — employ a new host, and away they go again.
One of the assets of Masked Singer is that, when it arrived last year, it was a fresh format. We’d never seen anything like it. And, as with Lego Masters and Australian Ninja Warrior, the novelty worked in its favour. That’s not always the case, as Pooch Perfect demonstrated earlier this year. The appeal of the new fades fast; there needs to be something interesting happening to entice viewers to return beyond the first episode, even if curiosity and avid promotion might initially hook them.
Built into this format are useful elements to keep it fresh: with every season there can be new costumes, new singers, new songs, even new panellists. Although he’s unseen on screen, and with respect to the panel members who are working hard to appear constantly excited, Tim Chappel is the star of this show. His creations are its centrepiece and its driving force. But the panel plays its part.
Dannii Minogue, Dave Hughes, Jackie O and Urzila Carlson on The Masked Singer.Credit:Ten
This season, Dannii Minogue, Dave Hughes and Jackie "O" Henderson have been joined by comedian Urzila Carlson. In one of the few COVID-related bonuses, the travel restrictions meant that last year’s inclusion, Lindsay Lohan, who struggled to contribute anything worthwhile, especially if it involved local knowledge, was not able to participate.
For the premiere season, her presence did generate some headlines, which would’ve been appreciated by the publicity team. In a clever casting move, she’s been replaced by Carlson, who lends a cheeky charm to the proceedings and seems to have set herself the task of making preposterous guesses about the identities of the singers: Kim Kardashian, Adele, Celine Dion, Barnaby Joyce, John Travolta, Tasmanian salmon, the Cash Cow. Really? Still, one would have to guess that this is certainly a show that allows for some silliness.
Novelty formats typically burn bright for a short time and then fade and quietly disappear. While The Masked Singer might not be hitting the ratings heights that it achieved last year, it’s still getting more than a million viewers around the country a couple of nights a week, which isn’t too shabby. It suggests that the interest in this novelty hasn’t disastrously waned and that, happily, there might be more of Tim Chappel’s costumes to dazzle us in the future.
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