More than perhaps any other television format, the singing competition has found itself in a state of accelerated progress. In quick succession, American Idol’s basic “We’ll tell you if you’re a good singer” premise gave way to The Voice’s “We’ll tell you if you’re a good singer without looking at you,” which in turn became The Masked Singer’s “We don’t care if you’re a good singer or not, because you’re a minor celebrity dressed up like a sentient banana.'”
Evidently, however, progress isn’t always a good thing. Now the singing competition has landed upon Alter Ego; a show so catastrophic, so legitimately nightmarish in both concept and execution, that it deserves to be drowned in concrete and hidden at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. I guarantee that people will be talking about Alter Ego for decades to come. This is because the enduring global mystery of the next 50 years deserves to be “How the hell did this charred wreckage of a series ever get made?”
The premise of Alter Ego is as follows: a procession of singers dress up in skintight mo-cap garb and then perform a song backstage. Meanwhile, out on the studio floor, their movements are recreated in real time by a computer-generated avatar. If you ever wanted to see a dreary power ballad belted out by a pink fairy, or an androgynous alien with tentacles for hair, then Alter Ego is the show for you. But obviously you don’t want to see that, because you place value in your ability to not constantly wake up screaming every single time you fall asleep.
Make no mistake, these avatars are desperately ugly. There is a universe in which Alter Ego contains nothing but beautiful, expressive, photo-realistic CGI characters that exist to heighten the joy and drama of each performance. Sadly, at least based on the screener I was sent, we do not live in that universe. No, we live in the universe where to watch Alter Ego is to witness an array of dead-eyed, herky-jerky PlayStation 2 non-player characters wobble and lurch through some of the most forgettable songs of the last 15 years.
It’s hard to accurately describe quite how inept these avatars are. They’re blank-faced and wooden. Their mouths have a depressingly limited range of motion. They look more like they belong in a museum of criminal taxidermy. The thrill of a singing contest traditionally comes from watching a contestant combat their nerves and deliver a soaring, emotionally dynamic performance that leaves everyone in floods of tears. And that is incredibly difficult to achieve when your performance is pushed through a sub-par Snapchat filter that makes you look like the embalmed half-cousin of the Crazy Frog.
Instead, and this is the part where things go from “bad” to “truly unforgivable”, Alter Ego has to claw its emotional content from other sources. As such, the contestants on Alter Ego all have conditions that make it hard for them to present as themselves. One has Tourette’s, for example, and one was bullied for her deep voice. In the world of Alter Ego, this means that they get to finally achieve freedom in themselves by allowing a perfect computer-generated character to take the strain. But in reality, it’s just profoundly depressing. It’s like watching a Black Mirror episode about a technology that wipes away our flaws but ends up draining our humanity.
In one moment (and I really couldn’t care less if this is a spoiler) one of the performers breaks down in tears backstage. And, you guessed it, so does her avatar in the studio. Big streams of cartoony digital tears spurt from the undead eyes of her weirdly immobile alien face. Worse, the sight of this in turn causes Nick Lachey and Alanis Morissette – both judges on the show, along with Grimes and will.i.am – to also burst into tears. It’s like watching a negative feedback loop of weaponised insincerity. Without hyperbole, watching Alter Ego feels like watching the end of humanity.
I’m working on the assumption that Alter Ego will be canned after a single episode, because for my own sake I have to place some faith in mankind. But if it isn’t, and this wretched series eventually ends up with a winner, then who will actually become famous? Is it the shy, fallible human who performs backstage with a camera stuck to their forehead? Or is it their perfect avatar? For the life of me, I hope it’s the former. Singing competitions have always carried a sheen of exploitation to them, so imagine how much worse it would be when you’re put to work as the workhorse component of a cartoon fairy. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Hand on heart, Alter Ego is the worst thing I have seen on television in a decade. Please, someone, fire this monstrosity into the sun so it cannot hurt us any more.
Alter Ego begins on Fox on 22 September with a UK date to be announced