A gigantic cone of sausage and chips delivering the best primetime TV cover of En Vogue’s Don’t Let Go since Little Mix won The X Factor. A purple blob belting out a surprisingly theatrical rendition of Cameo’s Word Up! A humanoid robin wearing sequinned gold trousers, hitting the high notes in immaculate falsetto.
This might sound like the start of a mildly disturbing fever dream – in fact, it’s merely a taste of the sheer weirdness that’s in store if you switch over to ITV on a Saturday evening. Based on a series that originated in South Korea and has been a huge hit in the United States, The Masked Singer is one of the most chaotic but ingenious formats ever to grace the weekend TV schedule.
Part celebrity talent contest, part classic game show, it sees celebrities disguise themselves in elaborate, nightmarish costumes (think Guillermo del Toro creatures dressed by the Strictly Come Dancing wardrobe team and you won’t be too far off) and sing to a panel of judges, who – along with the viewers at home, aided by a new set of clues each week – attempt to guess their true identities. At the end of each episode, one contestant is unmasked, emerging from their costumed cocoon looking dazed but elated. It shouldn’t work – but if you’re prepared to embrace its hallucinatory silliness, it’s essential viewing; before you know it, you’ll be furiously mining Wikipedia for facts that might back up your hunch that the sparkly robin with impressive vocal range is in fact erstwhile JLS frontman Aston Merrygold.
Switch over to BBC One after the unmasking and you’ll find The Wheel, a star-studded game show presided over by the frustratingly affable Michael McIntyre, where famous faces attempt to help contestants win the jackpot. Each celeb has a specialist subject, ranging from the specific (Gemma Collins on Essex) to the nebulous (Stacey Dooley on travel), but the spinning set can also align them at random to topics far outside their comfort zone.
Much like The Masked Singer, it’s a concept that sounds convoluted on paper, but somehow works on screen. Both programmes have been hits for their respective channels, with overnight ratings regularly reaching around the five and a half million mark. Their success is surely thanks to the participants’ willingness not to take things too seriously – and the same could be said of two other Saturday night success stories, The Wall and The Hit List, that have recently aired on BBC One. The Wall sees host Danny Dyer playing (as ever) a parody of himself as he berates the ‘wall’ (a game board made up of a series of tubes that correspond to losses and gains – it makes sense when you see it) for “mugging off” contestants and banters with question master Angela Rippon. The Hit List, meanwhile, is hosted by cheery former pop stars and married couple Marvin and Rochelle Humes; they’re on hand to dish out encouragement as contestants vie to identify pop songs, and the artists who sing them, as quickly as possible under intense time pressure (cut to Rochelle’s politely disgruntled face when one contestant failed to recognise the opening bars of one of her band The Saturdays’s biggest hits).
Aside from returning favourites like In For A Penny and Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, ITV’s entertainment output, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly meta, with a new series of Alan Carr’s Epic Gameshow re-imagining retro quiz formats from the broadcaster’s archive (previous episodes have brought back the likes of The Price Is Right and Bullseye) and The Chase’s quiz master Bradley Walsh even fronting a programme called How To Win A Game Show, providing tips on just that from a variety of light entertainment veterans. This month, his Chase colleague Paul Sinha will front TV Showdown, testing teams of celebrities on their knowledge of… TV shows. And outside the weekend prime time slots, game shows are providing us with comforting but compelling viewing, too. Richard Osman’s House of Games is now a mainstay of BBC One’s weeknight schedule, while Taskmaster, which started life on premier dad channel Dave and has since been acquired by Channel 4, has become a cult favourite.
It’s not hard to see why programmes like these have become lockdown success stories. Practically speaking, it’s relatively easy to incorporate Covid-secure precautions into game shows with panellists sitting further apart and protected with Perspex screens, so it makes perfect sense that broadcasters are investing in them right now, when safely filming dramas with big casts and multiple locations is surely a logistical nightmare. Indeed, The Masked Singer’s elaborate masks and built-in secrecy measures (contestants are kept away from the crew to keep their identities under wraps until the final reveal) mean that the show has been inadvertently pioneering social distancing since its launch (the current series, filmed last autumn, has a scaled down live audience, with guests sitting in their social bubbles).
Plus, with cancelled gigs and filming commitments postponed, the pandemic has left many performers with unexpected gaps in their diaries, meaning that the calibre of the average light entertainment show guest has stepped up considerably in recent months. The first two episodes of The Masked Singer saw bona fide pop star Sophie Ellis Bextor and actual Spice Girl Mel B unmasked, followed by Love Actually’s Martine McCutcheon and, erm, former England manager Glen Hoddle (who’d been disguised as a Beauty and the Beast-style singing grandfather clock) so all bets are off as to who is lurking behind the remaining masks (my money is on Sheridan Smith as the sausage). Taskmaster, meanwhile, regularly spotlights a mixture of big name comedians and up and coming talents, with This Country’s Daisy May Cooper emerging as a fan favourite in the most recent series (which will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with her brilliant Instagram account).
These crowd pleasers are perfect shout-at-the-telly collective viewing, too. An unexpected joy of spending this latest lockdown at my parents’ house has been introducing the show to my mum, who has since become convinced that the Viking “has Colin Firth’s speaking voice” and that a towering bush baby wearing a onesie might be Pierce Brosnan, as if the Hollywood cast of Mamma Mia somehow found themselves marooned in Hemel Hempstead with time to kill last year. Her guesses, though, are reliably more sensible than those of the judging panel’s resident wildcard Rita Ora, who last week confused Alan Titchmarsh with Alan Partridge, only to then be left gobsmacked when her fellow panellists reminded her that the latter is a fictional character.
It’s this sort of refreshingly lowbrow silliness that makes these shows great fodder for Whatsapp groups and Twitter threads, too. Right now, checking social media all too often feels like scrolling through doom and gloom on an exponential scale, but on Saturday evenings, there’s a brief window of respite. As endless lockdowns have left us feeling adrift from the people around us, too, it’s strangely reassuring to know that several million others are also sitting in front of living room TVs or laptop screens, watching a six-foot tall badger singing soft rock songs.
The Masked Singer is on ITV on Saturdays at 7pm; The Wheel is on BBC One on Saturdays at 8.30pm