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In Praise of ‘The Masked Singer,’ TV’s Last Uniter (Column)

This year’s post-Super Bowl program makes a beautiful sort of sense: It’s hard to imagine a more perfect pairing for the NFL than “The Masked Singer.”

That’s true both pragmatically — it’s the biggest hit on Fox’s air right now, so why not let it and the most-watched broadcast of the year pump each other up — and aesthetically. “The Masked Singer” has all the gleeful, slick brainlessness that characterizes America’s most popular sport, the same triumphant sense of production exerting control over potential chaos. And it has none of the downsides. “The Masked Singer,” unusually for the reality genre, is a series fueled by optimism rather than rancor: Its great appeal is its belief in the power of showmanship. In that, it represents spectacle that even football skeptics can enjoy — and it generates the refreshing sense of something stupidly fun enough to be truly mass entertainment in the era of the niche.

Some of “The Masked Singer” is genuinely laudable on a craft level — the suits the competitors wear, for instance, reflect a commitment to jolly fun that is admirable, so far does it tip into mania. (This new season features, for instance, a singer dressed as a taco with his or her face covered by a cherry tomato mask. That’s a level of proud inanity that deserves some consideration.) And it’s sweet to see genuinely iffy singers feeling the courage to express themselves when concealed and done up; unlike other “celebrity” reality shows, this show degrades neither its participants nor its audience. The costumes conceal both the competitors and the ways in which the show can find its way towards being pleasingly low-fi, hinging in the end more on human emotion than on outsized stagecraft.

But the element of “The Masked Singer” that is most easily mocked — and the one that it most plainly shares with NFL football — is the less-than-expert commentary by a panel who are likelier to guess that, say, Beyoncé or Rihanna is competing on the show than the lower-wattage stars who actually do. As the show has gone on, though (its post-Super Bowl berth launches the third season), this has come to seem less like bug than feature: These people know as little about celebrity as, say, Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul did about live vocals, and are far nicer about it. After all, isn’t wondering if a Raven-Symoné or a Paul Shaffer is among the biggest stars on earth on the basis of stage presence a compliment?

It brings to mind a recent quote by Michael Strahan, the former football player-turned-TV host. As an NFL commentator, he said, his job is “entertainment. We are mostly just the opinion of the game. You don’t want to sit in a meeting five days a week and then on Sunday turn on the TV and feel as if you’re in another meeting when you’re watching a football show.” If the conversation between Ken Jeong, Jenny McCarthy, Nicole Scherzinger, and Robin Thicke feels a little dim — well, there is something relaxing about allowing oneself a harmless moment of idiocy, and something prosocial too.

For those who indulge, “The Masked Singer” fills the function of what had once been water-cooler chatter in what are, for many, now-increasingly-siloed jobs. Being forced to tolerate the clueless on small issues (like whether or not Meghan Markle would really compete on “The Masked Singer”) is a healthy practice for dealing with them on the big ones (like everything else). It’s also one that’s increasingly rare.

After all, even the gridiron has become, well, a political football, one about which Strahan and company’s entertainment-focused coverage is eliding a fair deal. Perhaps as recently as five years ago, the upcoming San Francisco-Kansas City matchup would have seemed deeply appropriate — fans in blue California and red Missouri can enjoy alike. That’s been shifted by both the contretemps over Colin Kaepernick’s protest and his subsequent unemployment as well as by the league’s seemingly insufficient response to long-term brain damage among players. Seemingly safe ground for political discourse had eroded. Other parts of the broadcast feel attenuated now, too, from the ads (all now extensively previewed online for some ultra-cynical reason known only to marketing firms) to the halftime show (pulled together this year only under strain and with the understanding that various true music A-listers wouldn’t consider taking part).

Which leaves the lead-out slot to bring us together. The timeslot has less power than it once did, too, but something about the special character of “The Masked Singer” suggests to me it’ll be fine. The last truly notable post-Super Bowl broadcast was “This Is Us,” which promoted that it was going to kill off its central character and unleash a vale of tears. By contrast, “The Masked Singer’s” value proposition is relatively innocent: Tune in, have some laughs, let the dumb parts give you something to talk about, tune out, go to bed having been distracted and diverted for a while. It’s one of the core functions of TV throughout its history, and one increasingly less central to the medium, whether for reasons of lofty ambition or of circumstances intruding on once-uniting entertainments like the NFL. Either way, “The Masked Singer” promises to end the Super Bowl festivities on a note of uplift — even if it’s the first of the night.

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