The first two seasons of “The Mole” came at an extraordinary time for the reality TV genre. The series, which premiered in 2001, was made during that brief and delicate time when competitors to mainstream broadcast unscripted series had yet to figure out how to play the roles we’re familiar with. Tasked with determining who among them was sabotaging the group challenges, the show’s cast members allowed themselves to be, well, themselves: jagged and untelegenic and embarrassingly serious and real. Eventually recast into an all-celebrity format, the show lost what made it special and disappeared, but fans remember both the intrigue of the show’s gameplay and the rawness of its players.
The reboot of “The Mole” retains much of what made the original work. There’s an intriguing international setting (Australia, here, instead of the original’s mainland Europe); an anchor with a winking, nonchalant presence and the ability to think on his feet (MSNBC anchor Alex Wagner replaces Anderson Cooper); and the game itself, precisely crafted to spark disruption and dissent. Each elimination comes after a test; the person who knows the least about the mole’s identity is eliminated. It’s television as a mousetrap, “Survivor” if Agatha Christie had been showrunner.
However, what is missing may not be the fault of the producers. It can be that hard to find people willing to be on reality shows who don’t speak the language too fluently. The cast (youthful and surprisingly conventionally handsome, a departure from the old “Mole,” featuring personalities of all ages and appearances) are keenly aware of what is expected of them. And so, while the drama they generate throughout the game captures our attention, it’s hard not to feel like there’s something a bit canned here.
Competitors are apparently encouraged, in strong terms, to relate their life experiences to the game they are playing; this was mainly felt as the impact of the last season of “Survivor”, which has built installations around clashes between generations and between blue-collar and white-collar workers. This means that the backstory and its tenuous connections to what’s happening on screen becomes the star. When one person on “The Mole” said her job as a computer analyst made her a great critical thinker, I nodded, when another said her psychology major made her “literally learn how people’s brains work,” my patience was tested. I laughed out loud at a third individual saying that “as a focus group moderator, I know how to ask the right questions.”
And this kind of toxic self-awareness runs through his time on the show. Throughout the first five episodes, the competitors seem apprehensive to go a moment without literally commenting on who they think the spoiler is, turning every second into extended paranoid commentary that leaves the audience little room to draw their own conclusions.
Sub-2001 “Mole” continues to be “The Mole”, a show whose sophistication and solid concept make it hold a very special place in the hearts of its devotees. And, if there were to be future seasons, there’s plenty to grow into; the challenge design is solid and Wagner has the ingredients to be a good host. (If his interactions with the contestants seem like a bit of a strict script, that rhymes with pretty much everything else the contestants do.) The producers have also done a graceful job of hiding the ball; While something is clearly afoot, I came away from the first five episodes really unsure of where to start casting my suspicions. In the absence of players whose personalities give us something to hang on to, the pleasure of a well-structured game may suffice.
The first five episodes of “The Mole” will be released on Netflix on Friday, October 7, with episodes 6 through 8 following on Friday, October 14, and the final two episodes arriving on Friday, October 21.