“The Mole” is on Netflix now. Maybe it’ll finally get the credit it deserves.
The reality show, whose first two seasons recently arrived on the streamer, was part of the early-2000s boom in unscripted TV. Its greatest impact may have been introducing its audience to its host, a not-yet-famous Anderson Cooper. It didn’t match the explosive success (or the staying power) of peer shows like “Survivor” and “American Idol” in its moment — but that might just mean it will feel fresh on a second look.
That chance would be overdue: The second season of “The Mole” was pulled from ABC’s schedule in 2001, eventually running as a summer replacement series. It ignominiously returned in a “celebrity” format that sucked out the intellect that had been central to the show, then aired one more civilian season with a new host in 2008 before fading out.
“The Mole’s” clever idea is that within a group of players attempting to win money as a group is one saboteur, who works to botch their group challenges and keep earnings low. Each episode, the participants are quizzed about the identity of the person working against the team; the person most in the dark is sent home. The show seemed to sense a certain fundamental lack of stickiness, because the second season amps up the number of immunities offered and twists in the game. While both of the initial, Cooper-hosted seasons are strong, a touch of insecurity bleeds into the show by its conclusion.
It didn’t save the show, but it also didn’t harm it: The fundamentals are strong, and the tone is unshakeable. The whole thing is treated as a drawing-room mystery that seems designed both to appeal to some small subset of the show’s potential viewership — it’s not shocking, in retrospect, that it wasn’t a huge hit — and to delight them utterly.
“Survivor” and “Big Brother,” for instance, both use extreme locations to pump reactions out of their social-experiment subjects; on the former, the peril and possibilities of a deserted beach elicit fear and wonder, while on the latter, the drudgery of being inside all day prompts the mind to race with paranoia. “The Mole,” instead, seemed largely set on giving its contestants a nice time. They stay in lovely hotels across Western Europe, eat three meals a day in upscale restaurants, have wine with dinner nightly. Cooper is both the host in that he’s the emcee and also seems to be genteelly carrying off a dinner gathering among intimates. The producers seem in search less of emotional extremes than of an Agatha Christie vibe: There’s a culprit at the party, but let’s not stop the party.
There’s a sensibility at work here that is literary without feeling false. The host helps, too: Cooper, as suave then as now but with, too, a certain fundamental scrappiness, alternates between game participant in the action and Vincent Price-esque tormentor with a sort of winking camp. It’s at once a fully engaged bit of hosting and a sort of elaborate performance of the character of “reality TV host.” He walks an interesting tightrope — in 2001, Cooper was not publicly out, and our culture was in a very different place. And yet there our host is, pouring himself another glass of red as the gossip flows or putting on an obviously affected menace as he gestures to a room full of Victorian dolls he calls “my girls.”
“The Mole” let viewers in on the joke. Its game design had a knife-sharp efficiency, sheathed in urbane wit. Its re-emergence on Netflix during a challenging time has not merely meant the possibility of escape to fun foreign locations — although the delight these players feel in travel is real, and vicariously exciting — but also the nostalgic opportunity to replay a sort of game that this viewer finds very comforting. If reality TV thrives on having normal people in the cast, then it works optimally well when one could see oneself among them. On “Survivor” or “Big Brother,” players get ahead through their mastery of social dynamics; one can kid oneself that these are winnable by the normal person, but it’s the uniquely charismatic who really pull it off. Skills-based shows like “Top Chef” or “American Idol” or “RuPaul’s Drag Race” ask us to marvel at talents that are rare by definition. They exist for us to marvel at — a pleasure, but not a relatable one.
The winning strategy on “The Mole” is to confuse one’s opponents. Even if one isn’t sure who’s actually committing the sabotage, making others think it’s you throws them off the scent for a while as you gather information. A mistake that on other shows would be disastrous — losing the immunity idol on “Survivor,” hitting a bum note on “Idol” — here provides an opportunity to get ahead. At some point, the team has to actually win at least some money by winning challenges, yes, but in the main, being inept or clumsy or just strange can and does work in players’ favor.
I first watched the show when I was 12 years old and drawn to narratives about being the odd person out, without a deep or rich understanding of why that might be (though I had my suspicions). I’d never seen a host like Cooper, who seemed to be running a sort of sophisticated kind of double talk whose second meaning seemed just outside my grasp. And I marveled at the show’s transformative effect: Its most socially awkward and physically ungainly competitors are the ones who seem likeliest to be concealing some private gift of knowledge. To stand out, here, is to have a certain power.
I’m not suggesting that “The Mole” cast a decisive blow for the outsider or anything like that; the closest its producers came to doing that may have been making a show for those who like highbrow caper comedy and arch references in their unscripted TV. But I do think there’s something special about the way the show — on a finite budget — made quite so much seem possible. There was a vivid imagination at play that reality TV could use more of, one that extended both to creating a host-player dynamic that felt rounded and real and to crafting a game in which weaknesses flip on their head and become strengths. If I ran TV, “The Mole” would have had twenty more seasons. But perhaps the fact that it feels like a hidden gem — available to discover for the first time right now — is what makes it itself. Seen a certain way, the show’s competitors, all of whom flop eventually, all look like potential masterminds. So too does this semi-forgotten show look, on streaming, like a future cult smash.