The Mole was as much of a cult classic as any reality show from the past two decades has been. Its initial run on ABC was from 2001-04, with a revival fifth season in 2008. Most people remember it for its mystery format and that it was hosted by a young Anderson Cooper (he hosted the two civilian seasons; Ahmad Rashad hosted the two celebrity seasons, with Jon Kelley hosting the ’08 revival). Fourteen years after that revival season, Netflix has revived it again, much to the delight of people who adored the show’s format two decades ago. And, keeping in the tradition of journalists hosting the show, MSNBC’s Alex Wagner hosts this edition.
THE MOLE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: Various contestants sit down at a table. A voice asks, “Are you The Mole?” They all say no… but how do we know they’re telling the truth?
The Gist: Twelve people are wandering a thick rainforest in Australia, with the first clue that they have to find a plane of some sort. These are the twelve contestants in The Mole. The group is tasked to work together to add money to a pot that only one of them will win at the end of the game. But, there’s a twist: One contestant is “The Mole,” tasked by the producers to sabotage the rest of the group’s efforts to grow the bank. Obviously, the contestants try to figure out who the Mole is throughout the game, using clues they gathered while doing the challenges.
In the first episode, three teams of four have to get use materials found inside the downed airplane in order to find three pieces of cargo, each worth $5000. One is up in the trees, one is in a rapids-filled river, the third is in a big sinkhole. Each team can open an envelope with a clue in it, but if they do they sacrifice $2500. In addition to getting the cargo, they need to bring it back to the plane before the hour they get is up and keep it secure until the next morning.
At the end of the challenge, the group is helicoptered to a luxury home that one contestant quipped look like the lair of a Bond villain. There, they take a quiz about the characteristics of who they think is the Mole. The person with the lowest score is eliminated, but no one who stays has any idea of how they scored relative to the others.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? The original version of The Mole, of course, whose challenge format has influenced physically-oriented reality competitions like The Challenge.
Our Take: Aside from the fact that you hear the words “The Mole” about 100 times during the first episode as everyone speculates just who the Mole is, the format of the The Mole is one that we’re surprised hasn’t been used all that much over the past 21 years. It’s one that adds so many layers to the game, because no one can trust each other fully, no matter how many alliances they form or, in the case of Dom towards Will, man crushes get formed.
Some of the speculation on who might be the Mole is based purely on incompetence, like when Joi, a pilot, leads her group in circles, even though she’s well versed in reading maps. The first episode has people’s speculation all over the map, because no one knows each other. It’s distracting to see “well, maybe he’s the Mole, maybe she’s the Mole” every minute or so, but that will regulate itself as the group thins out and people work with each other and get to know each other more. At some point the speculation will probably start focusing on a handful of people.
The presentation of the show is as slick as any reality competition out now, but the old spy motif of the original was more fun. The production values put The Mole closer in look and feel to shows like The Challenge, which would have likely never existed if The Mole didn’t do it first. Why not bring back the style of the original series that was loved so much, even if it’s a little cheesy? There seems to be little need to zuzzh up The Mole for a 2022 audience given the fact that the gameplay itself is so strong.
Wagner is just fine as host; on The Circus and her new MSNBC show, she shows the same arched eyebrow playfulness that she shows here, but is all business when it comes to the quiz and who gets eliminated. The elimination quiz looks great on those tablet screens, but the red/green smartphone screen elimination gimmick grows old quickly.
Sex and Skin: Nothing.
Parting Shot: The credits roll when the elimination is down to the final three; we find out about who gets eliminated in the first five minutes of episode 2, then the remaining group is off Brisbane, where they have to pick two “masterminds,” and the rest of them have to break out of the city’s abandoned prison.
Sleeper Star: We like Dom’s sense of humor, but Greg seems to be the shit-stirrer of the group. He even thinks that he’s smarter than everyone else, while he’s also getting heavy speculation from the rest of the group that he’s the Mole.
Most Pilot-y Line: Osei on Joi sending his group in circles: “The math is not mathin’. And I ain’t good at math, but I know that math don’t work.” Listen, it’s a funny line, but it feels like one that he spiced up a bit for the camera.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Mole isn’t quite as fun as the Anderson Cooper version, but it’s still a solid reality competition format that we’re glad is getting new life with Netflix.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.