Having sat through four seasons of Netflix’s Ozark, I consider myself something of an expert on money laundering. Just as watching a decade-plus of ER and Grey’s Anatomy have me prepared to do brain surgery, I’m pretty sure I could take millions of cartel dollars and make it clean, all without turning on a single lightbulb.
Thanks to watching two decades’ worth of celebrity reality TV, I also consider myself something of an expert in celebrity image laundering. It turns out that if you put almost anybody in a camera-filled house or teach them three minutes of dance choreography or hide them behind a comically outsized mask, you can shift almost any narrative from, “Aren’t they a criminal?” or, “Aren’t they a pariah?” or, “Weren’t we just disgusted by them?” into, “Tee-hee. Aren’t they amusing?” or, “Aren’t they a bad singer/dancer/boxer/skater/survivalist?”
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The latter two questions represent a distinct improvement over the others.
The case study for reality TV-driven celebrity image laundering will always be what NBC did on behalf of Donald Trump with The Apprentice. Circa 2004, Donald Trump was that rich guy who said boorish things on Howard Stern, kept declaring bankruptcy, and was willing to attach his name to literally anything. The series restored legitimacy to The Donald, and then, when Trump’s presidential campaign started off as its own, much less funny form of a joke, Saturday Night Live helped give one last bleaching to his image. From punchline to president in barely more than a decade.
It shouldn’t be surprising, I guess, that so many of the figures recently receiving image laundering from the reality TV machine have associations with the reality TV president, including the breaking point that made me write this column.
This week, our corporate siblings at Deadline reported that one of the first contestants eliminated on this season’s yet-to-air installment of The Masked Singer was Rudy Giuliani, and that judges Ken Jeong and Robin Thicke walked off in protest and refused to participate in the show’s trademark post-unmasking banal banter, leaving Jenny McCarthy and Nicole Scherzinger alone for what one can only assume was the 21st century’s equivalent of Frost/Nixon. Deadline says that Jeong and Thicke eventually returned, though it’s unclear whether they did so after somebody backstage merely pointed at their contracts or because they received some assurance that this season’s garish costuming won’t later be stripped aside to reveal Eric Trump or the MyPillow guy.
Fox declined comment, and if Giuliani was actually the first eliminated contestant, one can imagine a scenario in which a couple of minor reshoots could allow the show to pretend this never happened at all. But, ultimately, why would the producers of The Masked Singer or any other tawdry reality show feel even a modicum of shame? This stuff happens all the time.
Omarosa Manigault Newman, birthed as a public figure by The Apprentice, used Celebrity Big Brother and then Australia’s Big Brother VIP as a launching pad for her revised public profile as a Trump critic. Anthony Scaramucci lasted 10 days as Trump’s communications director, then used a corny appearance as a “fake” guest on Celebrity Big Brother to give the impression of a new perspective on life and parlayed that into a talking-head gig on CNN as a Trump critic. Caitlyn Jenner was half-running for governor of California as the media was buzzing about which reality shows she was or wasn’t about to appear on. American Idol rather grossly used Kellyanne Conway’s daughter as a promotional pawn, and Conway, in turn, used American Idol as part of her post-Trump normalization and, in the process, caused me to stop watching a reality competition that used to be a personal favorite.
Sean Spicer, a man whose exclusive claim to fame was misleading the press during what turned out to be a surprisingly short period as Trump’s press secretary, was probably the pinnacle of this sort of laundering pre-Giuliani. ABC’s Dancing With the Stars put Spicer in a position to change the conversation from impeachment crowd numbers and whether or not Hitler used chemical weapons to his ability, or lack thereof, to do the salsa. It’s a show that previously gave Tucker Carlson perhaps his highest-profile vehicle ever, not that I can necessarily draw a clear line between being unable to dance and repeating white nationalist talking points on TV.
Using reality TV for low-level criminality isn’t just commonplace — it’s pretty much entirely what the genre exists for. Bring us your previous drunk drivers, drug possessors and tax evaders yearning to breathe free. And that’s before we get to the genre’s embrace of non-illegal behavior. Reality TV is the last bastion of the bad tweeter, the near-canceled, the unapologetically non-PC reprobate.
And it isn’t just the celebrity-inflected reality shows that do this. CBS’ Survivor, which thus far hasn’t lowered itself to devote a season to celebrity contestants, thought nothing of bringing on former baseball reliever John Rocker, he of a wide range of racist and homophobic rantings, for a season.
I’m not writing this because The Masked Singer had a high-profile Republican on the show. Rob Schneider, for all the dumb things — some dangerously dumb — he says on social media, is probably exactly the sort of person who should be doing The Masked Singer. I thought it was gross that The Masked Singer had Sarah Palin on, because it’s my opinion that few figures have done more to destroy the discourse in our country, but her qualifications for a celebrity reality show are far more substantive than Sean Spicer’s, and her unmasking struck a reasonable balance between shaming her and shaming the show.
Where are the disgraced liberals getting the celebrity TV image-laundering treatment? Unclear. Are Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner not being asked? Do they have too much — muffled chuckle — dignity? Or is the feeling that the mainstream media is already doing the laundering work of a Celebrity Big Brother on their behalf? (Draw your own conclusions.)
Rudy Giuliani, however, has moved past shame, and having him on Masked Singer reflects poorly not on him, but only on the show and on Fox. He’s immune. Once you’ve spent the past half-decade yelling incoherently into various voids, having press conferences at confusingly blundered locations, maintaining you were not, in fact, fooled into disrobing to have sex with a possibly underage prostitute by Sacha Baron Cohen, and answering questions about the brown goo dripping down the side of your head, there’s nothing left. If the producers of The Masked Singer protest that they booked the mob-fighting prosecutor who became America’s Mayor and Time‘s Person of the Year in 2001, nobody should believe them.
The Masked Singer booked a man who has been the public face of an unsuccessful attempt to overturn a democratic election. He is under congressional investigation as an alleged ringleader of an alleged coup. He is one of the defendants in a $2.7 billion lawsuit filed last February by voting machine company Smartmatic against Fox News and various talking heads. I don’t for a second expect that Rudy Giuliani is going to find himself in jail or facing criminal charges in the next few months, but there is a narrative of very active disgrace tied to Giuliani, not past-tense disgrace. And the Masked Singer producers and Fox felt they wanted to be a part of the laundering process for him.
There is, as I’ve already said, no downside here for Giuliani. Even if he was the first person booted this season, that means he spent a few days rehearsing, looked like a fool, and had a puff-piece post-elimination conversation in which presumably the judges cackled and asked about uncomfortable wardrobe and off-key singing and not about Jan. 6, 2021.
And if two judges played selective sanctimony and walked off the stage? Well, it gives conservative pundits an easy target, because who is anybody associated with The Masked Singer to take a moral stand? The show’s regular panel includes a plagiarist with at least one accusation of sexual assault, an anti-vaxxer who contributed to wildly poisoning the country’s perception of autism, and a host whose past virulent antisemitic comments have barely been addressed. There’s a lot of grossness going on.
So why would The Masked Singer or Fox want to be a part of any of this? Why would they think having Rudy Giuliani as a contestant wasn’t a nadir for a genre built for one nadir after another?
Sigh. You’re welcome, I guess.
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