Fox’s ‘Masked Dancer’ doubles down on zany ‘Masked Singer’ strategy


The Fox broadcast network is the scrappy underdog of the decade’s content wars, due to Federal Communications Commission rules around the Disney merger with 20th Century Fox. With no studio available to create in-house content, Fox has to rely on shows it has contracted out to other production studios, live sports and cheap reality fare.

Fox has carved out a niche with the third option, taking on shows no one else in their right mind would air.

But Fox has carved out a niche with the third option, taking on shows no one else in their right mind would air, like “The Masked Singer.” Now it’s doubling down on this scrappy strategy with the newest addition to the “Masked Universe” (yes, that’s really what they call it), known as “The Masked Dancer.”

Looks may be deceiving. “The Masked Dancer,” like “The Masked Singer,” is so wild, it just might work.

“The Masked Singer” was not the first time Fox has successfully produced shows other networks might laugh at. Indeed, launched in the late 1980s, the “fourth network” became a respected rival of the original big three of NBC, ABC and CBS by doing just that. Shows like “The Simpsons” and “In Living Color” were viewed as risky — but Fox had the last laugh.

Perhaps that’s why Fox took a chance on the South Korean game show “The King of Mask Singer.” Other than the minor edit to the name, Fox brought the show to the U.S. basically unchanged, a national guessing game with an aesthetic as bizarre as its concept. Celebrities in garish costumes, who may or may not have a shred of singing talent, perform anonymously for the audience. Think pieces and parodies proliferated.

On the daytime talk show circuit, Ellen DeGeneres, whose brand is synonymous with dancing (both her own and getting guests to follow suit), created “The Masked Dancer” as a comedy bit. Deprivation of hearing the contestants’ singing voice made it essentially impossible to guess which celebrity was which — and the bulky costumes also dramatically decreased the wearer’s range of movement.

Far from insulted, Fox responded by buying up DeGeneres’ idea. And why not? After all, the other “Masked” spinoff, “I Can See Your Voice,” is just as absurd: a singing competition where the contestants stand on stage silently, while a panel tries to guess which recorded song could be theirs.

The difference is that “I Can See Your Voice” doesn’t feature celebrities making fools of themselves (other than the judging panel, of course), while “The Masked Dancer” depends on it. This show falls squarely back in the “What’s My Line?” category of old-school game shows. Except there’s no voice to provide clues, and the celebrity in question is trying to dance while covered from head to toe.

The good news for everyone involved, including Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulators, is that the franchise’s producers have already started to dial back all of the costumes after the first crop of singing celebrities complained. The outfits have slowly morphed from the round hairy balls of Monster and Miss Monster to the svelter looks of the Seahorse and the Mushroom. (Though, the Snow Owls built for two was still pretty difficult to move around in.) In other words, unlike the DeGeneres’ version, these masked celebrities will be able to at least try to dance.

The show is deeply aware that, unlike “The Masked Singer,” fans need clues in order to stay engaged (or argue on Twitter and Reddit).

Moreover, the show is deeply aware that, unlike “The Masked Singer,” fans need clues in order to stay engaged (or argue on Twitter and Reddit). As a result, host Craig Robinson and the show’s producers are far more generous with tips than in previous iterations, and the costume each character wears are designed to reference the person underneath. Fans also hear the celebs’ real voices. This may seem overly generous compared to “The Masked Singer,” but apparently the show has worked hard to find the right balance. It remains to be seen if the audience remains fooled or not.

So will “The Masked Dancer” dance off with the same sort of ratings as its predecessor? It helps that some of the celebrities are ringers — the first episode has at least two trained professionals in the mix. That gives audiences at least two performances worth tuning in for and three that — well, they tried. (On an unrelated note, the dancers perform on an obviously empty soundstage that is then combined with the disconcerting faux audience footage that has been a staple of “The Masked Singer” pandemic episodes. That may work for some, but not me.)

Fox is clearly hedging its bets. The new show is being billed as a “limited series,” so it won’t have to officially cancel it if it’s a total failure. On the other hand, audiences do love to watch celebrities dance: The “American Idol” spinoff “So You Think You Can Dance” has lasted an improbably long time, and though “Dancing With the Stars” is finally starting to see a decline in audience ratings, the British parent version, “Strictly Come Dancing,” remains a cultural staple.

Despite the ridiculousness of the premise, “The Masked Singer” has continued to dominate ratings during the pandemic. Perhaps masked anonymous dancers is merely the logical next step for our pandemic-addled brains.

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