It admittedly feels lame, or lazy, to each TV season crown a freshman series “the new low for reality television.” Every year, there’s any number of similar coronations—or, I guess, condemnations. Has the ball dropped in Times Square? Then usher in the new wave of griping about the “trashiest,” “stupidest,” “most offensive,” “craziest,” or, a modern favorite, “batshit” reality show “ever!” Or at least until next year!
This isn’t a recent phenomenon, born out of desperation for the clicks, likes, and retweets that come when headlines scream in hyperbole. For over three decades now, the race to crucify the next evolution of reality TV has been as competitive as networks’ race to escalate the shows’ outrageousness. It’s been happening ever since the 1991 season of The Real World challenged viewers to stop being polite and start getting real—and networks, in return, have wondered just how far they could take that dare, bastardizing the idea of what is “real,” and certainly what is “polite,” along the way.
The criticism comes from many sides, too. It’s not just the conservative pearl-clutchers you’d expect who are parading the streets chanting, “Shame!” at whatever crass/uninspired/morally depraved distraction reality TV producers have concocted.
There are those who have found various iterations in bad taste (think plastic surgery shows like The Swan) or demeaning (the poverty tourism of series like Duck Dynasty or Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo). The exploitation of sex and non-traditional matchmaking has long raised eyebrows, even before season 425 of The Bachelor premiered this year.
Purists who have championed the genre as a window into identities, cultures, and walks of life that might lead to empathy and more progressive understanding wondered, often misguidedly, what value there is to be had in a Keeping Up With the Kardashians or Real Housewives, while those who embrace those guilty pleasures have wondered if sometimes we take them too seriously.
Then there are the talent competitions, a branch of the reality-TV tree that seems to have networks vigorously hopping on top of it and then foraging for whatever fruit drops from it, no matter how rotten.
It’s wild how far we’ve come from the purity of the early years of American Idol—someone sings good, wins a prize and the nation’s heart—to this.
Even when there are recent successes in the genre, like Fox’s The Masked Singer, which plays more as an entertainment program a la Dancing With the Stars or a throwback vanity stunt like Battle of the Network Stars than a talent competition, networks seem to have lost the plot completely. It could be tossed up as a fluke of shameless ostentatiousness that, because of how the societal winds happened to be blowing at a certain time, managed to capture the attention of the masses.
This is all a very long lead-up to discussing Fox’s new series Alter Ego, a show so inane that the pendulum swings the other way and forces you to think anthropologically about how we got here.
It is the culmination of years of craven grasping for gimmicks, trolling for viewers’ attention with unnecessary spectacle, and critics’ shrieking of “This Is So Dumb!”—a protest that, it seems, has instead become water to the Gremlins. The extremity of the insults only makes the networks more menacing. It’s a wonder each time they do it, masterminding a concept even sillier and needlessly complicated than the attempt before.
Alter Ego premiered Tuesday night, a demon child equal parts The Masked Singer, which disguises celebrities in fanciful costumes to conceal their identities while they perform, and The Voice, which purports to judge contestants on their vocal chops alone by having the judges, at least at first, listen with their backs turned to them.
That it’s this long into this review and I haven’t yet told you what the conceit of Alter Ego is probably isn’t fair.
But maybe without the context of how this genre has sped up a mountain of ridiculousness like a funicular with rockets attached to its back, you wouldn’t understand that this isn’t a big creative swing that might be admired for its audaciousness. It’s the most recent example of a deeply cynical game of copy-and-paste, just in a crazier font, that networks have been playing.
And perhaps without the acknowledgment that, sure, critics have been a bit trigger-happy with their cannon-blast headlines heralding the “worst,” “craziest,” or “dumbest” reality show yet, you wouldn’t understand that it is with careful consideration and an even hand that we pronounce just how bad this one is, too.
The idea here is that, instead of actually performing on stage before the judges and the audience, contestants are singing backstage while state-of-the-art motion-capture technology creates digital avatars that appear in their place. That means that they’re hidden from view, belting their hearts out while what everyone else sees—and is judging—is a CGI cartoon. In other words, their “alter ego.”
Host Rosci Diaz explains the thesis in voiceover as the show starts: “Unlikely singers from across America get a chance to reinvent themselves and become the next-generation superstar.”
Now, let’s parse this for a second. First of all, “unlikely singer.” What the hell does “unlikely singer” mean? I have seen the entire premiere, so I know that all of the contestants had heads. Heads with mouths, even.
We have to talk about what’s coded here, as well as in shows like The Voice or last year’s I Can See Your Voice. The message with these shows is, wow, who would ever have imagined you to be a good singer since YOU’RE UGLY. Or POOR. Or FAT. Or, above all, OLD.
At one point in the episode, a contestant who has always felt judged because she has a low, manly voice, finishes singing and then cries. “This solidifies that I am who I think I am,” she says, while digitally altered to look like a blue alien with a mohawk and the ability to shoot sparks from her feet.
The idea of these shows, to be less snarky, is offering a chance for people to be judged solely on their talent, ostensibly fixing a classic industry problem of phenomenal singers being passed over for more conventionally attractive people who are the proverbial “package.” I would venture that, if I were to compare the two, the series that tackles that more elegantly is The Voice, and not the one who strips contestants of their entire identity, renders them inhuman, and turns them into cartoons.
This brings us to the other part of that opening manifesto, the whole “next-generation superstar” promise. Is Alter Ego suggesting that the future wave of entertainers will not be people, but CGI characters concocted to look and move however, one can assume, label executives want them to? On the one hand, that is gross. On the other hand, is that not just the animated feature film Sing?
As further proof that we are simply living in a 30 Rock multiverse from which there is no escape—at least not from the spate of television series that seem like they were invented as a joke for the series—this show in which people sing as digital avatars is judged by the most random assortment of celebrities yet, which is saying a lot: Alanis Morrisette, will.i.am, Grimes, and Nick Lachey.
The first time one of the cartoon performers appears, will.i.am. loses it. “What the what! Look at this! This is freaking nuts!” he says, insinuating that he is a man who may have never seen a Pixar film. Later, he’ll marvel how this show is “art and science coming together.”
Lachey comments that, “We are here to judge the synergy of the alter ego and the voice,” which explains why the panel inexplicably spends more time raving about special effects, like one contestant being able to tussle his hair and another wink as their avatars, than the performances themselves. The prize for the show is $100,000 and a mentorship by one of the judges; nowhere does it stipulate that those future careers will be as these cartoon characters.
To some degree, I’m underselling the impressiveness of the technology at play here. As detailed by Rolling Stone, advanced camera-tracking technology, cutting-edge video-game software, and an augmented reality company are used to create the avatars so that they can interact with the judges and audience in real-time.
That is something that is ostensibly very cool to know, and yet meaningless when you watch a singing competition in which a CGI character and not a human, with all of their accompanying emotion and presence, performs. What is the thrill and excitement of live performance when you’re watching an avatar do it?
Each contestant has a story about how the alter ego helps them feel more comfortable singing, whether because they’re shy or don’t like how they’re perceived by the world. The backstories are all explained in emotionally manipulative clip packages that I cannot imagine a single audience member, not even the biggest fans of singing competitions, isn’t so jaded by at this point that they’re still affected by them.
When it comes to the big new singing competitions in recent years, it’s better than The Four. (A low bar.) It’s not as wacky as The Masked Singer. It’s not as prestigious as The Voice. And it doesn’t have Katy Perry, like American Idol does. (I really don’t know what superlative to offer that reboot, but it’s still a thing! I’ll give it that!)
That is to say that this is pointless, possibly the worst thing to be of all. No amount of CGI, it turns out, can fix that.