Cultures Film & TV

“It’s Fern 4!” – The Rise of the TV Guessing Game

Illustration by Yang Gao

Perhaps watching TV has become a background activity; aside from Netflix binge-watching, the likes of the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 now serve as a soundtrack to doom scrolling and other chores. Passive documentaries, Pointless reruns, and perky presenters plague our living rooms in the evenings. Enter the TV guessing game – a wondrous, though formulaic, phenomena whereby a panel of celebrity guessers represent the voice of a nation. Significant decisions and bold claims are made; after all, what could be more gripping than a declaration of which C-lister is hiding under a giant sausage costume?

Where has this genre suddenly emerged from? At the risk of coining a new Maybelline-esque slogan, maybe it’s COVID. The desperate lack of human interaction has inspired producers to capitalise off our boredom. And, to be honest, it has worked. I relish an evening gathered around the laptop screen, arguing with my flatmates and testing our faultless logic. The Masked Singer, I Can See Your Voice, This is My House, whatever. The tension built when the big reveal is coming engages me far more than yet another serene episode of Gardeners’ World (no offence to Monty Don’s lovely dogs).

Firstly, The Masked Singer. A South Korean import via the US, this programme invites celebrities to don enormous costumes and anonymously sing their hearts out. Helped by cryptic clues, a celebrity line up must generate theories about who is hiding beneath the mask, most of which wildly overestimate the budget of the programme. It’s ridiculous, yes, but I love it. Jotting down speculations in my notes app and the anticlimax when I don’t recognise the niche celebrity beneath the mask make for an excellent Saturday night. 

Some slightly less successful attempts have been made to match the hype of The Masked Singer, namely the BBC’s I Can See Your Voice and ITV’s Game of Talents. The first is also singing-based, but far from embracing its own ridiculousness in the way of The Masked Singer, this show simply asks us to judge whether each contestant’s look aligns with the voice they lip sync to. I’m not a fan – I appreciate that the guessers are members of the public and thus in with a chance of getting some winnings, but the level of anticipation for the inevitable big reveal isn’t on par with The Masked Singer. The same goes for Game of Talents; I’m just not invested in whether a random person can sing or not, or what niche talent they have. But finding out who is dressed as a blob on the other hand? (Spoiler: it was Lenny Henry)… sign me up.

Taking up the interesting 9pm-on-a-Thursday slot on BBC One is This is My House. I was sceptical at first; this seems a little out-there, trashy even, for the BBC. Essentially, Stacey Dooley tours four people around a home, while each claims to be the real homeowner. Numbered from 1 to 4, each ‘homeowner’ is a wildly different character in both dress and personality. The obligatory panel of celebrities watching on is entranced by heartfelt stories about sentimental items in the home and must correctly guess the real homeowner, who will then walk away with £1,000. The premise is slightly questionable – we must blatantly judge the most likely homeowner based on stereotypes of the local area, the decor, and even the dog’s breed! 

My highlight of the show is the section perhaps best  described as ‘awkward’. The partner of the real homeowner must remain mute while each contestant recounts touching stories of their love and marriage. Stifled laughs and furtive glances at Dooley ensue, and the celebrity panel are left cringing and speculating. The panel of mismatched celebrities somehow works as they fall for heart-wrenching lies while Jamali Maddix provides a much-needed voice of reason.

There always seems to be one ‘homeowner’ committed to a certain identity: the doctor, the influencer, the xenophobic middle-aged woman. The last remains my biggest frustration with the programme, because Episode 5’s character of a Surrey homeowner was completely unnecessary. The commitment to hiring fake homeowners who are cruel to the others in their pursuit of the prize seems to have gone too far on this occasion. Also, a slight lack of logistical clarity means my main questions are yet to be answered: why are the owners of such expensive homes and lifestyles so intent on winning the BBC’s grand prize of £1,000? The producers clearly did not find the average British home gripping enough. Also, do the actors get to look around the home before filming begins? They must – how else would Michael 4 know where omelette ingredients were kept in Episode 2’s kitchen? I can’t help but feel it is these small mysteries which keep me watching. 

All in all, there is a lot to be said for the benefits of this new genre: interactive, a bonding experience, you name it. Whether the trend will outlast COVID, I’m not sure. The magic of watching a celebrity panel take their role so seriously is infectious and, as an audience member, I love feeling that same level of passion – even if it is just for an hour.

Lizzie is in her second year studying Geography at Jesus College. When not in Oxford, she lives in North Somerset and enjoys crocheting and watching TV!

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