By Andrew Biggs
I happened to be in front of the television, that ancient device we used to watch before Youtube, two Thursday nights ago when a calamity befell the nation.
You may have heard it as it happened. It was around 11 pm when approximately one and a half million Thais screamed in exasperation: “What???!!?!”
I was shouting it too.
This story begins at 8 pm on the evening in question as I sat down to write an essay for my Master degree. This requires intense concentration and silence and, as I write the final paragraph, a stiff vodka tonic.
I was on my opening paragraph, wallowing in academic sobriety, when my 19-year-old Thai niece entered the living room. She normally sits with me doing her own first-year university homework, but tonight would be different.
“Khun Andrew,” she asked. “May I turn on the television?”
A strange request. “Why? What’s on?”
“It’s the final night of The Mask Singer.”
“The Mask Singer. We’re going to find out who is the Durian and who is the Black Crow.”
I, like you, had no idea what she was talking about.
It transpires the two of us are both out of the loop when it comes to what’s red hot in the Thai entertainment industry.
The Mask Singer has been on every week for the past four months, despite the glaring grammatical error in its title. Surely it should be the Masked Singer? Or the Singing Mask? Or perhaps I should be less anal and mix myself that vodka tonic?
It’s a talent show. They started off with 32 singers. According to my niece, they were all famous. I expressed surprise at the idea of Thailand having that number of famous singers, but my niece did say they famous. Not talented.
There was a clever novelty; each singer wore an elaborate mask and outfit, so that viewers had no idea who they were. Every week someone got eliminated and that person tore off the mask to reveal their identity.
On this particular night, the show was down to the final two. And it was starting at 8 pm.
This had been a television phenomenon in Thailand for four months. Apparently the show blitzed the ratings; it was on Workpoint Channel, a station that is close to knocking the two big TV channels, Three and Seven, off their ratings perch. This was the show that could very well make it happen.
Meanwhile the Durian singer was Thailand’s most hyped superstar without ever seeing his face. He even had his own Line stickers.
I figured I could continue padding out my essay with the TV in the background, so my niece switched it on. Soon my interest waned in my essay and was drawn to that final show.
“I think I’ll take a break,” I said to my niece, joining her on the couch in front of the TV. Who would have thought I would never return to my textbooks that night?
The two finalists were both excellent, though Durian was clearly better than Black Crow. But you should have seen the hysteria during that live broadcast. It was Beatlemania for the new generation; hordes of screaming girls waving banners, with conveniently half of them cheering for Black Crow, and the other half screaming for the Durian.
The Black Crow sang. The Durian sang.
The winner was announced at 9 pm — the Durian.
Dear reader, I have never seen such hype in a TV show. It surely pushed the limits to just how hysterical we human beings can become before we explode, or disappear in puffs of smoke.
This was thanks to some very slick production and a tall, slightly skeletal-looking male emcee who clearly placed his fingers in an electrical socket during the frequent ad breaks to maintain his energy.
There was also a panel of nine jittery judges. None of them could stay in their seats; they resembled that sideshow attraction where you have to use a hammer to hit little clowns that keep popping up in all manner of places.
In short, it was slick and glitzy and successful. It is amazing to think that what transpired next would send it all crashing down like a pack of cards.
First of all, we had to find out who the loser really was.
That act took a good ten minutes, as cameras cut from every single angle as the Black Crow tantalized and taunted us as he slowly revealed his identity. He was a local singer of some notoriety, though hardly a superstar.
As the Durian took a back seat, our emcee then interviewed the loser … for an entire hour.
I remember visiting Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in London, in particular the section where they have the torture devices of old. The most memorable was the rack, where the victim is tied down and stretched, slowly, until all his limbs and ligaments are torn apart.
That was what The Mask Singer did to its faithful and dedicated audience for a good hour. They even had the audacity to take a break for the Royal News for 15 to 20 minutes before they returned to even more of the loser’s lackluster backstory.
By 10.30 pm, two and a half hours I could never get back, I turned to my niece. “Let’s switch this off. Surely we have too much human dignity to endure this any longer.”
My niece may not have understood what “human dignity” meant but she certainly got “let’s switch this off”. She started to get as jittery as those judges.
“No! No! We have to see who the Durian is!” she pleaded. And I relented.
At 10.50 pm, just short of three hours after the show started, the emcee finally wrapped up his interview with the loser. If they’d spent an hour and a half on him, how long were they going to spend with the victor?
The Durian came back out. “And now … we’re going to find out who he is …” the emcee screamed, as the crowd collectively wet itself and the judges bounced up and down like Despicable Me minions.
“ … NEXT WEEK!”
Cut to credits. End.
My niece and I sat there, gobsmacked. Apparently not just the two of us either.
The online backlash began before midnight. “Boycott The Mask Singer” campaigns erupted on Facebook and Twitter. Hashtags sprang up such as #RIPTheMask (leading some innocents to enquire as to why we had to rip up the masks). The entire population went ballistic, and I don’t blame them. I myself felt like a Tinder date who is wined, dined, taken dancing, promised the world then dropped off at the No.129 bus stop on Viphawadee-Rangsit Road without even the bus fare.
But weirdest part of the story has yet to be told.
This show is all about revealing who a mystery singer is and the shock derived from finding out.
But guess what, dear reader; everybody already knows who the Durian is!
He’s Tom Itsara Kidnitchee, lead singer of the band Room 39. So this story is even more bizarre in that the Thai viewership knew exactly who the guy was all along — and still were prepared to pretend to be shocked.
Last Thursday was the night the Durian was finally revealed. Ho hum. I certainly didn’t watch it, and as this column was written prior to the broadcast, I’m guessing there was an apology, the revelation, a drawn-out interview, an extra song or two, and then goodbye.
Only I wasn’t watching it. Nor was my niece. We are both students who understand that experience is knowledge and anyway, she had homework to do. I had essays to pad out.