'The Masked Singer': Producers promise trickier clues, bigger names and crazier costumes

Bill Keveney

In its first season, "The Masked Singer" arrived with some buzz in TV industry circles but viewers had little knowledge or expectation. It became a viral phenomenon and a surprise ratings hit, ranking as last season's top series.

The Fox celebrity singing competition returns for Season 2 Wednesday (8 EDT/PDT) to greater scrutiny and anticipation as producers promise a higher level of singing talent, better music choices and flashier, dare we say eggs-quisite, costumes.  

Success means a bigger, bolder show, as "Singer" goes from 12 to 16 celebrity contestants and from nine to 12 competition hours (including a two-hour opener and a Christmas-themed episode), along with set upgrades, such as "a new swanky-pants digital floor," executive producer Izzie Pick Ibarra says. 

The contest, based on a South Korean format, has amped up "by having more contestants and making the costumes even better," says judge Jenny McCarthy, who's joined by returning panelists Ken Jeong, Nicole Scherzinger, Robin Thicke and host Nick Cannon.

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A hatless Egg struts its yolk during a performance on Fox's 'The Masked Singer.'

McCarthy is an early advocate for The Egg – at least the costume – an appealing new entry known for its sunny-side-up fedora worn at a stylish tilt. Although character concepts generally come from producers and four-time Emmy-winning costume designer Marina Toybina, Egg was the idea of the celebrity wearing the costume, Ibarra says. "It was the oddest request that came in. It's so funny."

Cholesterol-free Season 2 characters joining The Egg include The Leopard, The Flamingo, The Fox, The Eagle, The Skeleton, The Butterfly, The Penguin, The Panda, The Ice Cream, The Tree (with Christmas decorations), The Rottweiler, The Black Widow, The Flower, The Lady Bug and Thingamajig, an odd creature "who is kind of related to Monster," Thicke says, referring to Season 1 champ T-Pain's one-eyed alter ego.

Judges Robin Thicke, Jenny McCarthy, Ken Jeong and Nicole Scherzinger return for Season 2 of Fox hit singing competition 'The Masked Singer.'

McCarthy marvels at Toybina's creativity. "What goes on in that brain, I have no idea. But it's good."

T-Pain will serve as a guest judge, with Joel McHale and Anthony Anderson returning in that role, too.

"Singer" has made a couple of structural changes. Just four characters will compete in each hour of Wednesday's premiere, to give viewers more time to get to know the contestants, Ibarra says.  

There's a twist to eliminations which still are decided by the studio audience and judges during the taped episodes. Each hour's lowest-rated twosome square off on stage in a new Smackdown competition.

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Leopard is a new character on Season 2 of Fox's 'The Masked Singer.'

"They sing at each other because it's a fight song. So you're seeing an egg and a leopard or something like that, a shake-your-booty fight," says Thicke, offering a hypothetical example. 

The show's hit status has changed the dynamics outside Fox, too. Talent agents and managers now understand the show and are on board with heightened security and  nondisclosure agreements, Ibarra says. This season, the few executives who know the singers' identities wore a particular color of clothing so the competitors could identify who it was safe to talk to, she says.

It's also been easier to license songs from music publishers. Last season, "they wanted to know who's going to be performing their songs and we couldn't tell them," Ibarra says. "And then we would tell them that someone dressed as an enormous rabbit would be singing their song."

Butterfly is one of the more elaborate new characters on Season 2 of Fox's 'The Masked Singer.'

The new crop of celebrities understand the game better. Thicke correctly identified Season 1 runner-up Donny Osmond and Ricki Lake because he recognized distinctive gestures, Ibarra says. New performers are making a greater effort to disguise distinguishing body language and producers will make clues harder to decipher.

"The contestants know the show now," McCarthy says. "They come into this saying, 'I'm going to one-up this. I'm going to trick the judges.' And they get into their character so much, you can't possibly figure out who it is because they've taken control."

But the judges know it better, too, Scherzinger says. The show was so unusual and the process so fast-paced the first season that "it's almost like we're just getting started."

Fox's 'The Masked Singer' features this brightly colored new entry: Flamingo.

After Season 1, it's also easier to cast bigger names than it was when "Singer" was an unknown quantity, now that people understand eliminations mean contestants "were trending worldwide," Thicke says. "That's the kind of perk you want in your career."

That won't stop judges from wildly inaccurate guesses or viewers mocking them. Jeong recalls last season's premiere when he wrongly guessed Justin Bieber as a singer identity. The camera switched to an audience member "who had a look of genuine, authentic disgust. My wife and I couldn't stop laughing."

Scherzinger says she's doing more pop-culture research to improve her deductive skills. But McCarthy says it's impossible to prepare, and she's ready for more social-media commentary along the lines of this Season 1 critique: "You idiot! How can you possibly think it's that person?"