Alter Ego is, by my count, Fox’s fifth attempt to replicate The Masked Singer’s success as a play-at-home, performance-focused guessing game that hides the performers from the show’s own judges and viewers.
I understand the impulse to try to duplicate that success, especially at time when it’s harder than ever to draw viewers to watch a broadcast show live. But besides being playable at home and often genuinely surprising, the magic of The Masked Singer came from how different and new it was. The replicants—I Can See Your Voice, The Masked Dancer, and Game of Talents—didn’t have the novelty, nor any of the charms.
Fox’s newest version of the format is Alter Ego (Fox, Wednesdays at 9), and it is an even bigger failure.
Alter Ego hides its singers—who are not celebrities, just regular people—by having them perform in motion capture suits. Digital characters, cartoonish animated humanoids with purple skin and funky hair, materialize on the actual stage, allowing the singer to hide their appearance.
Yes, technology finally made it possible to have a reality competition that’s focused on singer’s voices, not their appearances. And that technology was a swivel chair, which was used by a show called The Voice back in 2011.
What might have saved Alter Ego is if had just been The Masked Singer: Avatar Edition, with celebrities appearing via digital constructs instead of in masks. The masks and costumes are works of art, but they’re often bulky and limit the celebrities somewhat in terms of their performance, whereas the digital avatars can theoretically do anything. Here, they do rather basic animations, like shoot out sparks, catch on fire, and hover above the stage.
What the digital characters can’t do is move their mouths, but that shouldn’t be much of a limitation in a singing competition. While the contestants have a camera in their face, presumably to capture facial expressions, the alter ego’s face barely moves.)
The episodes Fox provided to TV critics said that “some elements” including “visual effects” “are not final,” so it’s possible the avatars’ mouths will have a full range of motion by the time it airs on TV. Update: The version that aired on TV looks even shittier than it did on the screener I watched, and the characters’ mouths just flap open and closed, just as they did not in a public preview that also had barely-moving faces. Even if the faces were to become fully expressive, the show still doesn’t make any sense.
Before the contestants sing, they’re introduced to us in a standard bio package, which means we know who they are and what they look like, so there is no mystery for viewers. They also talk to the judges, who hear their actual voices and parts of their stories. There’s very little mystery about personality or background.
So what, then, is the purpose of the avatar? I don’t like the idea of someone’s physical appearance being used as a big reveal, but that’s what we’re left with. Why exactly are the contestants’ appearances being concealed? “For the first time in their lives, they will be judged solely on their talent,” host Rosci Diaz says.
I don’t want to belittle anyone’s experience or insecurities or judgment that they’ve faced, but I do know that Alter Ego does an exceptionally bad job of helping us understand why this is necessary. My sense is that these are talented singers who’d fit on any singing competition, from The Voice to America’s Got Talent, so when they’re forced to try to explain why this show makes sense for them, it ends up being more comedy than drama.
“I would love to be the next generation’s digital superstar,” Samaera, who performs as “Misty Rose,” tells us. But that is a nonsense sentence. Unless we are all avatars in a simulation, no generation has had a digital avatar superstar, and I’d bet that no generation ever will.
“Dipper Scott doesn’t have Crohn’s disease; he doesn’t have any limitations,” Jacob Thomsen says of his avatar, not explaining how Crohn’s disease affects his singing and perhaps forgetting that the avatar is 100 percent copying his own movement. Dipper Scott does spin his tattoos around his arms, but I didn’t understand the connection of that to Chron’s disease.
Erny Nunez, age 17, tells us, “Because I’m young and have a baby face, people usually don’t give me a chance.” Erny is a TikTok star who already has 110,000 followers and 1.1 million likes despite only joining the platform earlier this year, according to a profile of him which says he also auditioned for America’s Got Talent.
Another episode-one contestant explains that they’re on the show because “it allows me to combine my love for singing and my love for technology,” and as flimsy a reason as that is, it’s actually the most rational.
When they actually perform, the judges and audience stare at an empty stage, which is an apt metaphor. The judges do have monitors just below the desk, and there are a few big screens for the (actual, human) studio audience. That means they can see the character rendered in real time, using the same technology The Masked Singer used for its fake audience.
The actual competition’s format is insufferable. Just five singers audition in the first hour; one contestant gets immunity, and one of the other four leaves the competition.
Immunity is automatically conferred to the first contestant—their avatar is placed on a floating diamond, a nice visual touch—and then, after each performance, the judges decide whether the current singer is better than the contestant who has immunity. That means we have to watch the judges compare the performance we just saw to the currently-immune contestant. So we hear the same banal observations over and over again.
As for judges Alanis Morissette, Grimes, will.i.am, and Nick Lachey, there’s not much to say. I guess it’s pretty remarkable that someone was able to convince NIck Lachey to do a reality television show.
I do wish a better show for Alanis, and seeing will.i.am go through the motions here made me miss NBC’s terrific Songland, on which we saw him fully immersed in the creative process of songwriting and singing. On Alter Ego, he gets to say things like: “The magic of what I’m watching—you’re looking at freaking art, science coming together.”
At the end of the episode, a recording of the eliminated contestant’s avatar returns, showing us the same performance that they were eliminated for, and then the actual person walks out, revealing their identity, which we’ve known the whole time.
At first, I thought, eh, this is just a mediocre singing competition—some decent performances, but nothing else. But if Alter Ego exists to watch avatars perform, and the avatars are terrible and don’t serve any identifiable purpose, than this is just a failure.
But I’ll give Alter Ego this: it lives up to its name, because it’s a lifeless clone of The Masked Singer.
Alter Ego is yet another attempt to replicate The Masked Singer, but is just a lifeless clone that doesn’t have a reason for existing. F
What works for me:
- Decent singers
What could be better:
- The digital avatars’ singing abilities
- The format
- The rationale for this show’s existence