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In a world of chaos, ‘The Masked Singer’ has somehow become our normal

Night Angel performs in the third season finale of “The Masked Singer.” (Michael Becker/Fox)
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Note: This post reveals the Season 3 winner of “The Masked Singer.”

The same week the threat of the coronavirus finally took hold in a meaningful number of American minds, the powers that be granted us a small kindness by seizing the opportunity to bury some news: Sarah Palin had revealed herself to be Bear on the Fox competition series “The Masked Singer.” Bear, for those blissfully unaware, is the cotton candy-colored mascot costume in which the former Alaskan governor pranced along to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” which she also rapped from memory.

Roughly eight weeks later, in early May, Palin appeared on an aftershow and told host Nick Cannon she viewed her stint on the series as “a walking middle finger to the haters out there.” It was all about the mask, she said. In a decade spent working as a political commentator after her failed vice presidential bid, she never felt as encouraged to be herself as she did while embodying Bear.

In the Before Times, Palin’s reveal might have held our attention for a day or two, at least. But the news instead lasted minutes, upstaged by the president’s address on travel restrictions and our most beloved actor’s covid-19 diagnosis. Our world had been kicked out of orbit, the country turned topsy-turvy. Did anyone really have extra energy to expend on this fuzzy nonsense?

Given the American response to this pandemic, that out-of-sorts feeling hasn’t faded. And as we continued to scramble, “The Masked Singer” chugged along. Unlike its peers, the popular competition series recorded months in advance and didn’t have to figure out how to do it all live. Wednesday’s third season finale, which crowned reality star and singer-songwriter Kandi Burruss’s Night Angel as the winner, remained a perfectly intact piece of pre-virus entertainment.

‘The Masked Singer’ lets us work out our national anxieties about who’s who and what’s true

Perhaps the show’s ability to remain at its already ridiculous baseline is why its weekly happenings have become a normal part of pop culture. We’ve had more than a year to make peace with “The Masked Singer,” the Americanized version of a Korean competition series. Costumed celebrities perform in front of Ken Jeong, Jenny McCarthy, Nicole Scherzinger and Robin Thicke, a hodgepodge of judges tasked with eliminating the weakest act each episode. Identities are revealed only upon elimination.

Early on, McCarthy noted this is “the most bizarre show, because I am talking to a peacock.” It’s also the show on which 10-time Grammy winner Chaka Khan was eliminated several rounds before professional football player Rob Gronkowski. Three seasons in, the whimsical costume and a political history weren’t the strangest parts of Palin’s reveal, but rather that she believed her “haters” would take it as a middle finger. Such oddities are only briefly entertained nowadays before they are brushed aside. The more off-putting “Masked Singer” experience might be the recollection of McCarthy’s off-screen stance on vaccinations.

“The Masked Singer” was a reliable ratings grab for Fox even in the pre-virus era, boosted by its palatable absurdity. The be-yourself sentiment Palin sensed is the very ethos of this show, which always seems to teeter on the verge of claiming that we all wear masks, metaphorically speaking. Even for those of us with knee-jerk reactions to the music choices — the series premiere alone featured Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder” and Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” a Clinton campaign relic — there’s something alluring about the democratizing guess-who premise. It presents a welcoming dystopia, as the New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix wrote during its first season, adding that “the cutesy creepiness dulls any sense of unease.”

As with many reality series, the popularity of “The Masked Singer” often says less about the show’s quality than it does about the needs of the people watching it. Is it an easy escape? A reminder that life can, in fact, get weirder than it already is? The first step on our journey to developing smooth brains?

Now, with actual masks as the style du jour, the most notable aspect of “The Masked Singer” might be how un-noteworthy its peculiarity has become. Parents welcome the program as a way to keep their children busy for an hour; an editor, for instance, recounted his 7-year-old son mistakenly insisting he “knew it was Brad Michaels” after Poison frontman Bret Michaels was revealed as Banana.

The elimination occurred on the 10th anniversary of Michaels suffering a brain hemorrhage — a bizarre coincidence that would ordinarily haunt this reporter’s brain for another 10 years, but that, like Palin’s reveal, lasted the equivalent number of minutes instead.

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