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Off with their heads! Why The Masked Singer is TV's most brutal gladiatorial contest

Rita Ora plays the emperor in the feral singing show. Who will she give the thumbs down to in tonight’s final?

Judge dread… Rita Ora and menagerie.
Judge dread… Rita Ora and menagerie. Photograph: Vincent Dolman
Judge dread… Rita Ora and menagerie. Photograph: Vincent Dolman

Feels gladiatorial, doesn’t it – a baying and screaming crowd, chanting in violent unison, demanding Denise van Outen rip her own head off. Perhaps this is the deep truth at the heart of The Masked Singer (Saturday, 7pm, ITV): that it unmasks not its weak singers buried deep within the costume of a monster, but the crowd themselves, the raw and feral omniperson we become when we’re in them. The same crowds that called for Roman slaves to murder each other are present, here, in a pre-record studio somewhere in Hertfordshire. Rita Ora is the emperor, her thumb wavering in the air for a moment, and lo, she does point it down, and what is almost certainly Jason Manford in a hedgehog costume has to pull his own guts out with a sword, for God and for glory.

If you have not yet seen ITV’s Saturday night not-quite crown jewel, you have managed to miss absolutely nothing at all, or perhaps everything. The format is something that plunges you into a fever dream: huge unblinking creatures – a monster, a yellow bath duck, a wizened old tree – waddle on to the stage, and perform a song, and we are told a celebrity is inside there, somewhere. A panel of judges – Davina McCall, Jonathan Ross, former Community star Ken Jeong when he can be bothered, and Rita Ora – review the song and make frantic, incorrect guesses about who the celebrity inside the beast could be.

This is where the show takes on a particular mum-got-too-pissed-at-a-dinner-party air. Rita Ora only knows the names of six celebrities, all of whom you assume she met at London fashion week parties; Jeong’s British celeb knowledge is obviously zero, so he has to fake an “of COURSE!” face of realisation when someone like Patsy Palmer is unveiled; McCall is oddly anonymous for someone who normally dominates centre stage; Ross flaps his hands, wears loud jackets, stabs in the dark. There is no points system for a correct guess; they are just guessing for, I don’t know. Fun? I don’t know. The whole thing is a parlour game with a budget of millions and absolutely zero jeopardy. Joel Dommett hosts.

If you want to get into it, The Masked Singer UK was ruined irreparably in week two, when former MP Alan Johnson – a man who struggles to get recognised in his own house, by his own family – tore his pharaoh’s head off and revealed yes, it was me all along: Alan Johnson. That was the exact moment every possible bit of glamour that could have been attached to the show withered away. You hope that there is someone A-list inside the duck, someone magnificent: a Cara Delevingne, a George Clooney? And then Justin from the Darkness shakes his hair out of the costume with a face that says: “That tax bill was a touch larger than I was expecting.”

Is this our Saturday night? Is this what we deserve to consume alongside our Tesco takeaway for two? Crucially, why are literally none of the performances any good? These questions and more can be answered, I suppose, in tonight’s final, when “Queen Bee” takes her own head off, and Jonathan Ross pulls his hair back from his face in shock, and a second series gets commissioned as surely as the Earth goes around the sun.