'The Masked Singer' preview: New animals face off in smackdowns, and winner T-Pain returns

Bill Keveney

You liked those wildly creative, brilliantly designed costumes on “The Masked Singer”?

Well, get ready to enjoy them in stereo in Season 2, as Fox's breakout singing competition (returning Sept. 25, 8 EDT/PDT) introduces head-to-head “smackdown” battles featuring disguised celebrities hoping to stave off elimination.

And, as USA TODAY has exclusively learned, fans of the monster hit will see  the one-eyed Monster himself, Season 1 winner T-Pain, in a guest-judging appearance, providing inside commentary as only someone who’s been inside one of those overheated costumes can.

Otherwise, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” says judge Jenny McCarthy of the South Korean format adaptation. She returns with host Nick Cannon and fellow judges Ken Jeong, Nicole Scherzinger and Robin Thicke for Season 2, which expands to 16 competitors  from 12. A third season begins right after the Super Bowl on Feb. 2.

Egg is one of the early nominees for favorite new costume on Season 2 of Fox's 'The Masked Singer,' which premieres Sept. 25.

Alas, McCarthy's advice is a bit late for one candidate for best new costume, Egg, who cracked one of his (or her?) brethren to create a sunny-side-up hat. Other new entries from Emmy-nominated costume designer Marina Toybina include Leopard, Flamingo, Fox, Eagle, Skeleton and Butterfly.

"Masked Singer" took America by storm when it premiered in  January, as celebrities – hidden by elaborate costumes with their speaking voices disguised – took the stage to sing. As judges and viewers tried to guess their identities, the studio audience voted for the best singers, whittling the field down until T-Pain triumphed over third-place Gladys Knight (Bee) and runner-up Donny Osmond (Peacock) in the February finale.

'The Masked Singer' host Nick Cannon, center, is joined by judges Ken Jeong, left, Nicole Scherzinger, Jenny McCarthy and Robin Thicke. All return for Season 2 of the Fox celebrity singing competition, which premieres Sept. 25.

With "Masked Singer" now a hit, interest grew for Season 2, and "I feel the average level of talent vocally is stronger," says  Thicke, who joined Cannon and his judging colleagues for an interview just days before the finale taping.

Skeleton, left, leans on host Nick Cannon during an episode of Fox's 'The Masked Singer.'

Jeong agrees, while raising the superlative ante: "The singing is better, and I think I'm dumber" in guessing who's inside the costumes.

Cannon raves about the smackdowns, which pit the two lowest vote-getters against each other for survival in early episodes. 

"It's cool being able to see the characters kind of battle rap," he says of the contests.

"It's great because they sing at each other," Thicke says.