Several years' worth of news seemed to hit in a single 12-hour span on Wednesday. As President Donald Trump addressed the nation, Tom Hanks announced on social media that he had COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. This was followed directly by the NBA suspending its season. But perhaps the most bizarre icing on this cake was over on Fox's surreal singing competition "The Masked Singer."
The competition, now in its third season, was in the middle of its weekly unmasking of the celebrity getting sent home. When the psychedelic pink and purple bear removed her head, it turned out this "celebrity" contestant was none other than the famous Alaskan half-term governor and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
This absurdist moment is the perfect encapsulation for our absurdist reality. Yet another reality show is hunting for eyeballs by riding the name recognition of right-wing political figures. Taking conservative figures and turning them into harmless softies works for everyone, from the networks who get ratings to the politicians who get their controversial stances wiped from the collective memory of viewers. And it's sadly effective.
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Palin's appearance comes on the heels of "Dancing With the Stars" casting former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Trump's minister of disinformation, last fall. That caused an uproar in the press, with many accusing "Dancing With the Stars" of normalizing and rehabilitating someone who had openly worked to help dismantle governmental norms. Worse, the show's plan to use Spicer for a quick jolt of newsworthiness backfired, as Spicer wound up competing for seven out of the show's 10 weeks, with Trump encouraging his constituents to vote for Spicer despite his poor footwork.
On the one hand, seeing "The Masked Singer" attempt to grab that same attention from right-wing viewers was distressing. The show has only been on for a year. (The first season aired in this same scheduling block in 2019.) Was the show already getting so desperate that it needed to play to our country's political divides?
But in reality, "The Masked Singer" was just following the crowd. "Dancing With the Stars" has been bringing in right-wing B-listers since the 2006 inclusion of Fox News firebrand Tucker Carlson. Since then, it has featured everyone from former House Speaker Tom Delay to Palin's daughter Bristol, who rode a right-wing "sticking it to the libs" vote all the way to the finals of Season 11.
A new generation of conservative politicos has discovered the way to the public's heart is through entertainment. They may not have an invite to "The Daily Show" or Stephen Colbert, but there are plenty of other nonpolitical shows happy to give them a chance to transform into relatively harmless-seeming caricatures. Who cares if Palin wants to rip the reproductive rights away from every woman in the country? Did you see how hilarious she was in that bear suit? The "Saturday Night Live" cold open essentially writes itself.
This soft-shoeing of dangerous political figures who promote white supremacy (Carlson), blatant lying to the public and press (Spicer), and religious fundamentalism (Palin) is not that different than the motivation behind NBC's "The Apprentice," which was based around the imagined ideal of the genius billionaire. Trump's crossover into politics was just an extension of this trend.
The good news, for those looking for a silver lining in these interesting times, is that Palin's run on "The Masked Singer" was extraordinarily short. The new format has the 18 contestants in this cycle competing in three heats of six. Last night's episode was the first week of "Group C," and Palin's first time on stage.
"The Masked Singer" works as a competition in part because it makes it impossible for obviously untalented celebrities to succeed on the basis of blind fan loyalty. (Relevant: "The Masked Dancer" is supposed to debut this summer.) With no one aware that Palin was under the bear mask, conservative trolls could not mobilize to save her from being voted out following a horrible performance of Sir Mix-A-Lot's 1990s staple "Baby Got Back."
Palin's talents, or lack thereof, is unlikely to dissuade casting directors, however. One can assume that whoever fails to win the presidency come November will likely be dancing or singing with stars of some calibre by the fall of 2021. (The days of retiring to one's farm in Texas to paint dull art are long gone.) Arguably, "The Masked Singer" system was working as intended when it immediately booted Palin. The real horror is that she was ever on stage at all.