Chances are you have yet to discover the newest inspirational show on television. This could be because the show is not “on television” in the way most of us think of. The Hulu Original Series, Behind the Mask, is a documentary-style show that features four men sweating, dancing, flipping and squeaking their way into fans’ hearts as beloved team mascots.
“I’m just your average, everyday Joe. But as soon as I put that suit on, its like, ‘Wow, I’m Superman.'” Those are the words of Chad Spencer, the show’s chosen Semi-Pro-level mascot, but these words fit perfectly all four of the show’s stars as well as mascots in general. Behind the Mask lets viewers inside the minds of the men inside the costumes and inside the souls of these four fascinating individuals. This is the type of reality show TV watchers deserve – something that will teach life lessons, encourage and motivate good behavior and introduce real, positive people into our lives who are truly worth knowing.
Behind the Mask, developed by Emmy-winning filmmaker Josh Greenbaum, has chosen four mascots at differing team sports levels – high school, college, semi-pro, and pro – and lets us into their heads, homes and arenas. Finding people, especially men, who are so open and honest about their jobs, families and trials and tribulations makes this show something special from the start.
Michael Hostetter is the show’s high school mascot. He is a 16 year-old, choir singing, awkward teenager and he could not be easier to applaud for. Hostetter is Rooty the Cedar Tree, the mascot in his hometown of Lebanon, PA. When not wearing Rooty’s mask, Michael is described by school staff and classmates as “monotone,” “not real animated,” “geeky” and “different.” But seeking “positive reinforcement” and wanting to be part of a school team despite lacking athleticism inspired Michael to try out to be Rooty, bringing out a new confidence and a more outgoing, silly nature.
Michael’s story is really one of overcoming adversity and bullying. A teenager who enjoys toy trains and lacks social skills, Michael gives off the impression of residing somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Watching him come out of his shell via his participation as the school’s mascot while hearing his uplifting sound bites is an incredibly affecting and inspiring experience. A boy who was tricked into being locked in a school closet while looking to try out for the school’s nonexistent swim team is now seen being hugged by cheerleaders, laughing with friends and making an entire audience of people smile and cheer.
Lebanon was once a thriving steel and railroading town but has since become one of the towns at the bottom of the barrel economically and as far as school sports and scholastics. But Michael has words of encouraging wisdom to spare. The first episode ends with Michael discussing the downward direction Lebanon has gone in and how most football games end with the other team beating Lebanon by a landslide. “Rooty and I love Lebanon High School. Rooty stands for Lebanon, he is there for Lebanon…I’m determined to get some school spirit in whatever event it is. My thinking is, ‘if I can do one move that will get the crowd really fired up, the team will start thinking, ‘Wow, Lebanon really isn’t bad after all, I can do it, I will win,” and from there they usually start making scores.”
In the second episode, the football team is in fact beat by over 60 points. Afterwards, Michael reflects, “It really wasn’t about winning or losing. Lebanon managed to get seven points. That’s a lot better than zero points in my book. That’s a lot better than zero points in anybody’s book. So we tried, that’s all that matters.” Also in anybody’s book? That Michael himself is a winner and a role model.
At the college level, the show focuses on the University of Nevada Las Vegas mascot Hey Reb, a rebel/mountain man with a six pack known for his huge ‘stache. Jon Goldman, aka “Jersey”, is Hey Reb and Jon’s story is an incredibly interesting one also. Jersey came to UNLV on a scholarship to be the mascot and he states “literally the first day I got in the suit, I’ve been flying 30,000 feet and haven’t come down.” That explains why Jersey is now a 6th year Supersenior, a Big Man on Campus that we see hitting on teachers and knowing everybody. School staff state that he is “living the life,” is “like a kid in a candy store” and “sleeps and drinks UNLV Rebels.”
The question for Jersey becomes, ‘What does the college guy do after college?’ “It kind of feels like me and Reb only have one year left to live,” Jersey tells the camera, the hint of tears subtly wetting his eyes. “It’s like I’m losing a friend. It’s so weird to say. I’m losing a friend. You better believe the two of us are going to make the most of this year.” Viewers will get to travel alongside Jersey and Hey Reb as they make the most of their last year of living as a duo.
Chad Spencer is Tux, the mascot of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins team for the semi-pro American Hockey League. Tux is notoriously a prankster and described as a “goofster” and “show-off,” making life as Tux a fun, laugh-filled experience. Chad even developed a special mouth piece that helps him squeak-talk in order to further bring Tux to life, make children laugh and communicate verbally with fans. Despite loving his job, Chad longs to break into the NHL and has had a few pro auditions that have yet to come into fruition and make his lifelong goal come true. Chad’s son from a previous marriage lives in Canada, where Chad’s accent clearly states that he is from. If he can get a job for the Edmonton Oilers or Calgary Flames, he can be closer to his son. Or if he can get any NHL mascot job, he could afford to fly his son out to see him more wherever he is. How could we possibly not root for this guy?
Another guy with excellent motivational moments, Chad says, “I just wants to be the best that I can be” and that he has “put everything into it – my heart, my soul, my sweat, my blood, my tears, everything.” He believes this is the year that he will go pro. “The clock is ticking. My body’s not going to be able to do this forever. I need to take every opportunity I can. As long as I see the dream, I’m going to keep chasing it.”
In the second episode, Chad/Tux has to bring a small crowd to life in order to inspire the team. “Those small crowds, man, they take everything out of you. I try to get them going, but you don’t get a whole arena atmosphere…That’s one of the things that I drive for, to get to the NHL, to perform in front of that kind of crowd, to be around that kind of an atmosphere. It would be great.” After taking a breath, Chad then changes his statement to, “It will be great.” Watching Behind the Mask means we get to follow Chad working to make his dream come true. I’m hoping down the line there will be an episode where viewers see Chad receive the call that he has gotten an NHL job. That would be an excellent TV moment, wouldn’t it?
Lastly, at the professional team level, we meet Kevin Vanderkolk. Kevin is Bango, the mascot of the Milwaukee Bucks NBA team. Kevin has turned Bango into a daredevil, acrobatic, aerialist show stopper who amazes the crowd with stunts such as slingshot bowling, trampoline dunks and his famous ladder dunk (in which he climbs to the top rung of an enormous ladder and dunks the ball while backflipping). Kevin describes himself as an “adrenaline junkie” who loves “heights,” “big moments,” and the feeling he gets when performing difficult tricks.
Kevin’s high-flying feats have landed him in and out of therapy for years. He states he’s sprained his ankle “too many times to count” and suffered “some pretty bad bone spurs, degenerative cartilage tears, shoulder separation,” tore his ACL and broken off the tip of his finger. To do this knowingly to your body, by choice, you have to live and breathe this stuff, which he does. Kevin contemplates, “I’ll probably do it until I can’t anymore…This is my career. This is what I do for a living and I love it.” Viewers will get to watch Kevin/Bango avoid and deal with injuries, nerves and making the crowd go wild due to his incredible feats of bravery and thrill-seeking stunts.
This idea that a person can be anyone they want to be behind the comfort of a mask/costume is truly the theme of Behind the Mask. “Once I’m in the suit, I’m not me anymore,” says Jersey. “It allows me to be someone that I’m not,” states Michael. What a mascot represents is so much bigger than one person – pride in something you love, passion in your interests, camaraderie and spirit for the higher power of a beloved team. These men, and boys becoming men, show us how impactful and influential believing in and cheering for something can be. Viewers of Behind the Mask are lucky to be granted access inside these furry, adored figures. And, once inside, it’s hard to take your eyes or minds off of them.