By Kristen Baldwin
January 02, 2019 at 09:00 AM EST
Michael Becker / FOX

Do you like music, guessing games, and costumes with an aesthetic that can best be described as Donnie Darko + Pan’s Labyrinth x Las Vegas? Then Fox has the show for you.

Folks, I have seen the first episode of The Masked Singer — in which “celebrities” wear identity-masking outfits and attempt to impress the judges and voting audience with their vocals — and I’m here to tell you… there are a lot of masks! The audience wears masks! Host Nick Cannon wears a mask when he first walks on stage! The dancers pretending to play brass horns behind “The Lion” during her performance are wearing masks! (More on that in a bit.) And the Masked Singers not only wear masks, their masks are attached to some of the most nightmare-inducing costumes ever seen on TV. It is, for lack of a better term, mask-tastic.

That is not to say The Masked Singer is a “good” show. But it is a spectacle, one that will captivate you against your better judgment and leave you with so many questions that you just may have to tune in for another week. It may also cause you to worry that someone dropped expired LSD in your Diet Coke.

So, how does it work? Well, friends, I’ll tell you. But first, an important note: While I have seen the first episode in which one “celebrity” singer was unmasked, I cannot tell you who that person is because Fox edited that part out. And honestly, I’m okay with that; this show is deeply disorienting, and seeing the reveal might offer a little clarity and ruin the whole confounding illusion.

(UPDATE: The unmasked celebrity in the hippo mask was Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver, Antonio Brown.)

With that out of the way, let’s move on to the explainer.

The Judges
What is the point of a singer singing — masked or otherwise — if he or she isn’t subject to “feedback” from a group of strangers, some of whom know nothing about singing? The Masked Singer’s judges’ panel consists of the fame-adjacent personality Jenny McCarthy; Robin “I know you want it” Thicke, singer of the consent-adjacent hit “Blurred Lines”; the medicine-adjacent actor and comedian Ken Jeong; and music-industry professional Nicole Scherzinger. It wasn’t until about 37 minutes into the episode that I noticed Jenny McCarthy’s on-screen ID says “Pop Culture Guru,” and I immediately needed a drink. Unfortunately, I was watching the episode at 2:30 in the afternoon (via a link on Fox’s press site), and I have no alcohol at my desk.

The Match-Ups
Each episode consists of three rounds, with two singers facing off in each round. The singers are only identified by their costume, so the match-ups in episode 1 are as follows: “Peacock vs. Hippo,” “Monster vs. Unicorn,” and “Deer vs. Lion.” In other words, every face-off sounds like the best nature documentary that Discovery never aired. It’s not really clear how the match-ups are determined, though I’m guessing the thought process was something like “make sure there’s one good singer and one less-good-to-terrible singer in each round to ensure that the decent contestant goes through.”

Before each singer hits the stage, we’re shown a pre-taped intro package where the contestants — still in full costume — drop “clues” to his or her identity. The Peacock, for example, says he’s been performing since he was five, and refers to Michael Jackson as “a dear friend.” The Hippo says he’s used to performing in a mask in front of screaming fans, adding, “I conquer every arena I enter.” The Unicorn teases that some may call her “Hollywood royalty,” and so on.

The Performances
As with any singing competition, the contestants perform a mix of contemporary songs (“Thunder,” Imagine Dragons; “Fight Song,” Rachel Platten) and classics (“Don’t Stop Me Now,” Queen). The quality of the singing ranges wildly: Sometimes the vocals sound like mediocre karaoke (lookin’ at you, Hippo!), and other times it’s possible to imagine that there might be a professional singer behind the mask. (Side note: Nick Cannon informs us that the contestants include “Grammy winners, Emmy winners, Hall of Fame players,” among other famous types.)

The judges are instructed to use the clues from the intro packages, as well as the singers’ voices, to guess which “celebrity” is standing before them. During the Peacock’s performance of “The Greatest Show” (from the soundtrack of The Greatest Showman), for example, Jenny McCarthy wonders, “Could it be Hugh Jackman?” That would have been the dumbest guess of the whole episode, but then Robin “you’re a good girl” Thicke suggested that the Peacock might be renowned singer Jimmy Kimmel.

Most of the time, Nicole Scherzinger is the voice of reason on the judges’ panel. She actually seems to be paying attention to the clues and the singers’ performances, while Robin “let me liberate you” Thicke is more focused on the contestants’ physical appearance. He’s quick to point out that the Unicorn, clearly a female, is “slim and pretty.” (YOU KNOW YOU WANT IT, UNICORN.) He also cat-calls the Lion during her performance. “Work them hips!” he cries. “Strut that thing!” Later, when the judges are discussing whether the Lion was part of a girl group like Destiny’s Child, Thicke refers to her “power-thigh Beyoncé walk.” Again, is 2:30 in the afternoon too early to drink? Be honest.

The Eliminations
After each match-up, the audience votes on which singer they like best. The other contestant is relegated to the “Bottom 3,” and then the judges decide which loser must remove his/her mask and head home. The creatures who survive move on to next week’s episode, until one mystery singer is left standing.

The Overall Experience
The Masked Singer is a deeply stupid enterprise, and there is a decent chance I will watch it again. Even as the left side of my brain was like What is happening? Are you having a stroke?, the right side was all, The Monster talked about his “mixtape” and said he wants to prove that he’s more than just “puff and fluff” — could he be Ma$e, the rapper who appeared on tracks with Puff Daddy and The Notorious B.I.G.? Ken Jeong thinks the Monster is hinting that he went to jail – did Ma$e go to jail? Not according to Wikipedia. So then which Diddy-affiliated rapper went to jail? Oh that’s right – Shyne! Wait… how did I wind up in this rabbit hole?

This is a long way of saying that The Masked Singer may very well suck you in, and there may be nothing you can do to stop it. Folks, you have been warned.

The Masked Singer premieres Wednesday, Jan. 2 at 9 p.m. on Fox

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