FOX’s CGI Singing Contest Alter Ego Forges Boldly Into A Ridiculous Future
Who needs live music, anyway? ABBA’s going on tour in hologram form. Travis Scott brought Astroworld into Fortnite. Artists keep offering “virtual experiences,” livestreams, and festivals over screens — maybe in-person performance is passé in pandemic times.
Alter Ego, a new singing competition show from FOX, offers its own form of futuristic music-making into the fray. The show is clearly desperate to cling to The Masked Singer‘s meme-fueled success, and the breathless marketing materials insist it follows a revolutionary concept. It abides by the tenets of all post–American Idol televised music contests — there are elaborate nights of auditions, treacly piano notes signaling emotional cues, a cadre of celebrity judges that restate the show’s name over and over and over again — but Alter Ego bills itself as the first truly digital one. Contestants strap into bulky, complex-looking greenscreen suits that enable them to perform as video game-like avatars: superhuman beings with neon skin and pastel mohawks, protruding horns and costumes that catch flame. It’s a trippy fantasia, a soothingly deadening way to pass an hour; it’s a silly show with a flimsy conceit that tries earnestly to sell you on its promise.
Why would a would-be professional singer opt to go in front of an audience as a green-skinned cartoon character instead of, you know, just singing? The first hour of the show’s two-part, two-night premiere (only Wednesday’s premiere episode was available to critics) doesn’t touch on the pandemic, a plausible reason to not want to enter an arena at the moment. Instead, Alter Ego parades a series of situations to support its premise. There’s a contestant with Crohn’s Disease who says the avatar can allow him to perform without showing pain; there’s a 17-year-old Sinatra crooner who agonizes that his “baby face” stops people from taking him seriously. “For the first time in their lives,” we hear in a voiceover, the contestants “will be judged solely on their talent” — a pledge The Voice made when it first aired, and The Masked Singer made after that.
The panel selected to judge this talent is both vaguely shocking and exactly who you’d expect. Grimes — whose transhumanist worldview aligns with the show’s core conceit, and who has raved to interviewers about the democratizing power of performing as an avatar — sports bright pink hair (at one point, she comments on how closely her own hair resembles that of a contestant’s avatar) and claps by tapping two extremely long nails together during the applause breaks. Former Masked Singer champion Nick Lachey makes his requisite reality TV show appearance. Alanis Morissette chimes in occasionally with the few actual notes of musical criticism the contestants receive. Will.i.am, introduced as “the most sought-after producer in the music business,” beams at each pixelated singer. The host is Rocsi Diaz, formerly of 106 & Park and Entertainment Tonight.
What shocks most about this show is how desperately it tries to take itself seriously, attempting to elevate the gimmick through sheer force of will — or sheer force of will.i.am. Of all the judges, the Black Eyed Peas frontman and tech aficionado — last seen hawking a $300 bluetooth facemask — is most consistently, and ostentatiously, wowed by the digital display before him. “I can’t even stop thinking about how awesome this is!” he cries out in between auditions. “The magic of what I’m watching,” he says at one point, looking genuinely thrilled, “it’s art and science come together.” Not to be one-upped, Lachey gasps that the technology in front of him is “earth-shattering.” Over the course of an hour, the judges spend maybe a third of the time gawking at the show’s premise.
The contestants also spend their fair share of screen time exclaiming about how revolutionary the show is and what a life-changing opportunity they have. “I need this alter ego more than anything in the world,” a singer remarks at one point, and the sappy internal logic of the show compels you to root for him. Another says on stage that performing as an avatar shows them that “I don’t have to be afraid,” and a robotic tear dribbles down their digital cheek. We see many of the auditions through a split screen: avatar on one side, human on the other, twirling and snapping and trilling in tandem. But it’s hard to overlook the absurdity of the whole affair when the backing band sneaks into the shot — actual people with actual instruments, gazing out at the audience while they play.
The singing itself is fine, sometimes bordering on great; it’s like listening to the best person in a college a cappella group tackle an endless solo. There are big, brassy belting numbers, pitchy high notes, and the occasionally stirring cover. But this isn’t a singing contest, not in the true sense; the judges seem far more preoccupied with the visual presentation, despite all the show’s insistence that its gimmick can transcend appearances. Will.i.am comments that a contestant’s avatar has an “international” look when trying to make the case for the performer’s star power; other judges bring up various special effects from the performances — a bowtie that sprouts flames! A vibrating tattoo sleeve! — during their deliberations. “It’s not always about hitting the note,” Alanis says as she gives feedback. In Alter Ego, it’s rarely about the notes at all.
The show doesn’t acknowledge any limits of digital performance; it trudges forward, blithely spewing platitudes about technological advancement, constantly pointing to “the future.” But it’s hard to find emotion or intimacy in these performances, or the sense of spontaneity that can animate a live show. Alter Ego, of course, doesn’t need to make any grand pronouncements about the increasing virtualization of the music industry — it could just be a fluffy, inane show, something to watch for comfort or curiosity, reveling in its own ridiculousness just like The Masked Singer. Instead, the series seems determined to prove…something. That corporal forms are a drag? That technology is advancing? That will.i.am can still get screen time? Alter Ego is too charmed by its own concept to figure out what questions the show’s asking.
Alter Ego premieres 9/22 at 9PM ET on FOX.