The first two seasons of “The Mole” came at a remarkable moment for the genre of reality TV. Premiering in 2001, the series was made during that brief and delicate time when competitors on mainstream broadcast unscripted series hadn’t yet figured out how to slip into the roles with which we’re familiar. Tasked with determining who among their number was sabotaging group challenges, the show’s cast members allowed themselves to be, well, themselves — ragged and un-telegenic and embarrassingly earnest and real. Eventually retooled into an all-celebrities format, the show lost what made it special and went away, but fans remember both the intrigue of the show’s gameplay and the rawness of its players.
The reboot of “The Mole” retains a lot of what made the original work. There’s an intriguing international location (Australia, here, rather than the continental Europe of the original); a host with a winkingly insouciant presence and an ability to think on their feet (MSNBC host Alex Wagner replaces Anderson Cooper); and the game itself, precision-engineered to evoke distrust and dissension. Each elimination comes after a quiz; the person who knows the least about the identity of the mole is eliminated. It’s television as mousetrap, “Survivor” if Agatha Christie had been showrunner.
What’s missing, though, may not be the fault of the producers. It may be just that hard to find people willing to be on reality TV who don’t speak the language a little too fluently. The cast (to a one youthful and strikingly conventionally attractive, a departure from the old “Mole,” which cast personalities of every age and look) are very aware of what’s expected from them. And so even as the drama they generate through the gameplay holds our attention, it’s hard not to feel as though there’s something a little canned here.
Competitors are seemingly encouraged, in blunt terms, to relate their life experiences to the game they’re playing; this felt primarily like the impact of latter-season “Survivor,” which has built installments around clashes between generations and between blue-collar and white-collar workers. This means that backstory, and its tenuous connections to whatever is going on onscreen, becomes the star. When one individual on “The Mole” said her work as a computer analyst made her a strong critical thinker, I nodded along, when another said her psychology major made her “literally learn how people’s brains work,” my patience was tested. I guffawed at a third individual saying that “as a focus group moderator, I know how to ask the right questions.”
And this sort of toxic self-awareness runs through their time on the show. Throughout the first five episodes, competitors seem afraid to spend a moment not literally commenting on who they think is the saboteur, blowing every single second into an extended paranoid commentary that leaves the audience little room to form our own conclusions.
Sub-2001 “Mole” is still “The Mole,” a show whose sophistication and rock-solid concept mean that it occupies a very special place in the hearts of its devotees. And, should there be future seasons, there’s a great deal to grow on; the challenge design is solid, and Wagner has the makings of a strong host. (If her interactions with the contestants seem a bit tightly scripted, that rhymes with just about everything else the contestants do.) The producers have done an elegant job, too, of hiding the ball; while something is clearly afoot, I emerged from the first five episodes genuinely uncertain where even to begin casting my suspicions. In the absence of players whose personalities give us something to really grab onto, the pleasure of a well-structured game can be enough.
The first five episodes of “The Mole” will launch on Netflix on Friday, October 7, with episodes 6 through 8 to follow Friday, October 14 and the final two episodes arriving Friday, October 21.