The year is only two months old, but it already has a sterling candidate for weirdest TV debut in The Masked Singer, Fox’s adaptation of a South Korean reality show about celebrities performing pop hits while clothed in ridiculous costumes.
If you haven’t watched it yet, the two-hour finale airs Wednesday, February 27, on Fox, and three singers remain — though they’re still known only as “Peacock,” “Monster,” and “Bee,” in honor of the truly ridiculous getups the unidentified celebrities wear. With the internet being what it is, many people have figured out to a reasonable degree of certainty who all three of these singers are, but I won’t dare spoil the fun.
The Masked Singer definitely has the air of a show that nobody quite expected to become this big. Indeed, once internet sleuths largely deciphered who was who, the series lost some of its fun for me, especially since it never quite had another gear after all 12 contestants and their bizarre costumes had been introduced. (For reasons I can’t quite fathom, The Masked Singer is an American Idol-style competition, having jettisoned the musical duel format of the Korean show.) But it’s also hard to quibble too much with a series that has given the world something as magnificent as this.
Yet I have so many questions: How were these costumes chosen? How did the show preserve its secrecy after producing its entire first season last summer in front of a studio audience? And was it really all filmed over the course of a long, sweaty weekend in a high school gym, as I have previously speculated?
To answer these questions — and more! — the series’s executive producer, Craig Plestis, hopped on the phone with me. Here are seven mysteries of The Masked Singer, solved.
1) The show’s commitment to secrecy was so all-consuming that basically everybody on the set was in costume
I had not considered that in a town like Los Angeles, somebody in The Masked Singer’s audience might figure out who one of the masked celebrities was based on which managers, agents, or publicists were hanging out at a taping, to say nothing of friends and family. But Plestis and his team had, and they made not only the celebrities but also their entourages remain costumed from the time they left home for the studio. (Now let’s take a brief moment to imagine the entourage from Entourage having to dress in costume because Johnny Drama was competing on the series.)
Regrettably, the show didn’t make all the celebrities’ respective retinues dress in costumes with thematic ties to the celebrities’ costumes. That’s too bad, because I wouldn’t have minded if LA had suddenly been filled with lots of Monster-alikes.
“Our security team was almost as large as our production team, and you have to add it all up with a secret compound that we kept the people in, and the security guards that shepherd these people [from the compound to the stage],” Plestis said, adding that it was among the guards’ responsibilities to make sure none of the show’s stars left their trailers without their masks on.
Other security measures implemented to heighten the secrecy around the celebrities’ identities included instructing drivers to take long, circuitous routes between the homes of the masked stars and the studio, to throw off any would-be tails.
Plestis says these measures will only be ramped up in season two, now that people actually know the show exists.
2) The series was filmed over about a month in the summer of 2018
Part of The Masked Singer’s charm is just how ramshackle it can feel. And while its production cycle was much longer than my “one weekend in a gym” hypothesis, it was much shorter than most TV production cycles: The Masked Singer spent about a month filming its 10 hours of competition (spread over nine episodes). (Most network reality shows have production cycles of at least a couple of months, to say nothing of extended post-production.)
This compressed production cycle also assisted in protecting the show’s secrets. By the time anyone was aware enough of The Masked Singer’s existence to perhaps try to spoil it, it had long ceased filming.
“The luxury of making season one was it wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Even when it wasn’t on anyone’s radar, we really spent a lot of time and energy of keeping things secret,” Plestis said.
3) Several of the costumes were remade over the course of the season to help the singers see and breathe
Before the season began production, the chosen celebrities were presented with a series of potential costume designs — 20 in total. Then each contestant chose their favorites, and the show’s costume department got to work making the selected designs a reality.
Across the course of filming season one, however, those costumes had to be redesigned here and there, sometimes for movement — if you watch the early episodes, you can see backup dancers and stagehands occasionally helping the costumed celebrities waddle offstage — but more often for visibility and for what Plestis calls “filtration,” a.k.a. “being able to breathe.”
Because the singers only got one shot at every performance — the show did not film multiple takes — it was important that their costumes allowed them maximum oxygenation and visibility. After all, Plestis said, the producers didn’t want any singers passing out or falling off the stage. And, yes, I think it’s good that no celebrities were injured in the course of filming the show, but I’m not sure I would say I wanted nobody to fall off the stage ...
4) The costumes also required tweaks to make the singers’ voices as comprehensible as possible — especially Monster’s
Just making sure singers could be heard — so viewers and the show’s judges could guess the voice behind the suit — proved more difficult than you might expect. “We needed to make sure that we had the best vocal ability coming out of those masks,” Plestis said. And that process took a surprising amount of time, especially for Monster.
The giant cylinder at the core of Monster’s costume ended up amplifying everything the star inside the costume said and sang, leaving a weird, echoing noise in early costume tests. The costume had to be redesigned multiple times before it could get a consistently solid audio level, Plestis said.
But that was true of all the costumes, and Plestis says a big part of what The Masked Singer’s production team learned in season one that will help them in season two concerns costume design.
5) Plestis isn’t sad that the internet made some really good guesses
Another big lesson the Masked Singer folks learned from season one: how to give viewers fair clues without giving away the game.
If you watched the show’s first two episodes, you might have noticed that the very first installment revealed the respective, uncostumed heights of the six singers introduced, while the second did not. (Screeners sent to critics before the season debuted still included this information, which suggests to me producers only later realized what a giveaway it was.)
This is all part of the process for the show going forward, Plestis said, and at the core of what the show learned in season one, which is that it’s important to give fair clues to the audience, but those clues also can’t give away too much.
Still, Plestis admitted, when it comes to someone like Terry Bradshaw — revealed to be the costumed singer known as Deer — there’s only so much the show can do to disguise someone with such a distinctive manner of speaking and laughing.
Ultimately, Plestis says, it’s hard to keep internet sleuths from doing what they do. What’s more important to him is preserving the feeling of a wacky party unfolding onscreen every week, for the majority of viewers who aren’t leaping immediately to Twitter to try to decipher who’s who.
6) Recruiting celebrities wasn’t too tough, but some stars declined so they could see what season one would look like
“We were very lucky everyone that we got who participates in the show got the idea instantly,” Plestis said. “We had an incredible sizzle reel cut, and we’d been using footage from [other versions of the show] around the world, explaining what the process is, explaining how the show worked.”
Still, some celebrities that Plestis and his team approached were intrigued but didn’t want to risk their image on a series that might make them look ridiculous for no real upside. But now that The Masked Singer is a hit, those celebrities might be more interested in additional seasons.
Plestis also hasn’t ruled out doing smaller one-off episodes or special guest star runs if major celebrities get a taste of Masked Singer fever. The original Korean series, for instance, famously saw Ryan Reynolds drop by for a one-off performance while he was on the Deadpool 2 publicity circuit. But so far, the series has no immediate plans for such cameos. (Though it’s not like Plestis would tell me, “Oh, hey, Tom Hanks is gonna drop by season two,” so who really knows?)
7) Those big reveals aren’t quite as wild as they’re shown to be on television
Every episode of The Masked Singer was filmed in a large theater, filled with people, all of whom could, presumably, spoil the identity of any one of the singers through a casual tweet or message board post. And yet the actual spoilers for season one largely never materialized. How on earth did Plestis and the Masked Singer team manage this?
Nondisclosure agreements for all audience members were involved, but the show also shuttled out most of the audience from the venue before each episode’s final unmasking, leaving behind just a small crew of people who worked on the show or were attached to that week’s mystery celebrity. So each reveal took place in front of a skeleton audience.
The final unmaskings you see on TV are carefully crafted via judicious editing, as many of the audience members looking on in shock and surprise weren’t even present when the singers finally emerged from beneath their elaborate costume heads. That may contribute to the overcaffeinated, jittery feel of the editing. (I know, I know — if you can’t trust The Masked Singer, who can you trust?)
Yet ultimately, the show’s secrets stayed safe, at the end of the day, thanks to people wanting to preserve the fun. At a certain point, all Plestis could do was ask his audience members to play along, and hope they listened.
”Luckily, they did,” he says. Now we’ll see if that continues in season two.