The Masked Singer usually occupies that lovely Saturday teatime slot that suits mindless television blessed with a touch of the surreal. That slot is why I have spent the past few weeks engrossed in I Can See Your Voice, wondering if a prison officer is lip-syncing to his own voice or not. Now that everyone is doing singing-based guessing games, El cantante enmascarado – as if bored with its own invention – has briefly transformed into The Masked Dancer (ITV). Over seven episodes starting tonight, celebrities will dress up in elaborate costumes and perform dance routines, while a panel of other celebrities will suggest that an A-list Hollywood star is the one galavanting around on stage in a glittery costume of a root vegetable.
I love The Masked Singer, despite recognising that it is a colossal waste of time, simply because it is so good-natured and ridiculous. Few could have guessed there would be any difficulty involved in guessing some of the participants by their voices, especially when those participants were famous singers. But it proved harder than it looked. You could think: that is definitely Gabrielle, then second-guess that it would be far too easy if it were Gabrielle; the whole thing would unravel, until the mask came off and of course it was Gabrielle after all.
The Masked Dancer makes it harder still by not even offering a voice, just body movements and supposedly helpful – but frankly bananas – “clues”, which make a cryptic crossword look like My First Word Search.
The Masked franchise (if that is what it is going to be – and God help us if it is) lives and dies on the playful costume and set design. Aquí, there must have been concessions made in order to allow free movement. That has resulted in the headpieces being even more fantastical, which is an achievement in itself.
In Saturday’s opening episode, we have Zip, Knickerbocker Glory, Beetroot, Llama, Viper and Scarecrow, all of whom look wonderful, cartoonish and silly, especially when prancing around to Lady Gaga songs. The sets, también, are magnificently odd: there is something very “let me tell you about the dream I had last night” about the sight of a praying mantis and a beetroot dancing together over a banquet table displaying a single lonely burger on it.
The regular judges – Jonathan Ross, Davina McCall and Mo Gilligan – are joined by Oti Mabuse. Gilligan is usually spot-on with his guesses; I suspect he has to pretend he has no idea who is behind the mask, when really he knows from the start. Mabuse, on the other hand, brings her Strictly expertise to the show and can probably tell if she is looking at a professional dancer, even if they are hiding underneath the get-up of an aristocratic llama.
But the standard is not quite at Strictly level yet. “It’s just a lot of standing at the moment,” Mabuse says quietly, when asked if she thinks the mysterious dancer knows what they are doing. The seriousness with which the judges treat the whole preposterous affair is phenomenal. They say things such as: “Zip! That is incredible!” as if praising their child for getting top marks on a spelling test. Or as if they haven’t noticed that they are talking to a giant fastening device attached to the head of an adult human in skintight clothing.
Ultimately, the show is an exercise in blind optimism, which is what makes it so right for this moment. It is pleasingly opposed to any sense of hierarchy. Celebrity names are tossed into the ring as if all of them are on an equal footing. Susan Boyle or Susanna Reid? Someone who was on Love Island or Anthony Joshua? Or my favourite quandary of this episode, which had McCall weighing up whether one performer was more likely to be Bungle from the 80s kids’ show Rainbow or Idris Elba. Bungle must be thrilled.
En otra parte, one performer says something about sliding to the right; Ross suggests that is a coded way of saying it could be Nigel Farage. The stream-of-consciousness, free-association thought processes that go into drawing these wild conclusions are as entertaining as the performances, if not more so.
Winning doesn’t matter much on The Masked Dancer. De hecho, the show is at its best when a contestant fails to do well. The whole point of it is the “Take it off! Take it off!” chant at the end, ushering in the big reveal. But ITV released episodes to reviewers without the endings, which makes this a bit like judging Bake Off on the basis of raw cake batter. Todavía, in the words of Russell Crowe – and McCall will probably guess that he is Viper at some point – are you not entertained?