The year is 2001. A young Clavicarius is watching TV with her parents. She isn’t very familiar with the show they’re watching, a reality show at the birth of that phenomenon, but something interesting is happening. Three contestants are separated into three different locked hotel rooms and tasked with the mission to escape. Each room is a little different, and each has several objects and clues inside. One of the rooms is pitch black. The players begin discovering the clues and communicating with each other through the room phones, realizing that the clues and objects are somehow all connected from room to room, a big, multi-step puzzle they must solve.
This unusual game leaves a big impression on little Clavicarius, and it is deemed the coolest thing she has ever seen.
That TV show was The Mole, and that game was part of the U.S. Season 1 finale.
The premise of The Mole is simple: Players must complete games and challenges successfully to earn money for the prize pool. One of the players is “the Mole”, hired by the show’s producers to covertly sabotage the challenges and prevent the players from earning money. Each episode, the players take a quiz with questions about the identity of the Mole, and whoever scores lowest is eliminated. In the final episode, the winner receives the money earned and the identity of the Mole and his or her sabotage efforts throughout the season are revealed.
The Mole was first conceived of and aired in Belgium and went on to have many different international incarnations. The version I’m most familiar with is the U.S. version which ran three civilian seasons and two celebrity charity seasons from 2001-2008. I’ve seen seasons 1 and 2, civilian seasons hosted by Anderson Cooper.
The Mole was well-received, but performed poorly for a variety of reasons. Season 2 barely even finished airing due to its poor time slot and low post-9/11 ratings.
I’m not the first person to have developed something of an obsession with this show. When cancellation was announced in 2009, fans rallied together with petitions and stunts to try and keep the show on the air. Reviews and comments on any trace of the show are overwhelmingly positive. A friend of mine who is big into TV and pop culture says it’s the only reality show he’s watched through a second time.
What makes The Mole so special? At its time, it was called the smartest reality show on TV. The Mole combined the action challenges found in most reality game shows with the drama of betrayal and secrecy. The result was a show with multiple layers of engagement for both the players and the viewers. You can root for the players to complete a physical challenge while simultaneously looking out for suspicious behavior, then watch the drama unfold between players on the bus ride back. As the players play mind games with one another, you find yourself doing the same. Is that player the Mole, or are they drawing attention away from the real Mole in order to get ahead? Or is that just what they want everyone to think they’re doing? Trust is given with great hesitation, coalitions form and are broken, lies are everywhere.
Aside from the premise and gameplay, the show’s other shining feature is its aesthetic. “Adventure” and “fear” are okay themes for a reality TV show I guess, but The Mole was able to take advantage of the strong existing cultural image we all conjure up when we hear the word “espionage.” The show uses green as its signature color, with a green thumbprint as part of the logo. The incredible soundtrack by David Michael Frank (which stands strongly on its own and is amazingly available on iTunes) brings to mind thoughts of James Bond and Mission: Impossible. From the oboe melody that opens each episode, to establishing shots bathed in that mysterious green light, everything is presented just so.
Most importantly, the show is able to present itself in a subtle way, in line with the theme. Episodes move at a relaxed, thoughtful pace. It’s difficult to watch other reality TV shows after getting used to The Mole. The Amazing Race suddenly feels simultaneously frantic and dull. I understand it’s an adventure race, but when there is no break from the action music and dramatic “woosh” sound effects, the pace plateaus and therefore flatlines. It all feels very heavy-handed and forced, like the show is afraid I’ll lose interest if something exciting doesn’t happen every 10 seconds. With The Mole, there is a feeling of respect for the viewer.
Despite the dramatic and serious theme of the show, humor plays a big part. Between Anderson’s antics as host, some of the more goofy challenges, and the personalities of the players themselves, the funny moments are some of my favorites. Behind-the-scenes footage shows players relaxing and goofing off during free time, and even before eliminations. It’s interesting to see how they all walked the fine line between friendship and self-interest, enhancing the duality of the show between light-hearted game and cut-throat competition.
After finishing U.S. Season 2, I became interested in seeing other versions of The Mole and began seeking out the U.K. and Australian versions. So far I’ve managed to find and watch U.K. Season 1 and Australian Seasons 1 and 2. We’re working on Australian Season 3 now, deemed by some to be the best international season. All of the seasons have been entertaining, some with new and exciting games, but so far my impression of the non-U.S. seasons is sub-par. The production values just aren’t as high, and I was surprised at what a difference that makes. Visually, I consider the US version extremely appealing. Artistic lighting is used to enhance the mood, players are taken to exotic locations, and eliminations take place in and around gorgeous castles and chateaus befitting the show’s overall aesthetic. Meanwhile in the international versions I’ve seen, everything is presented very as-is with little dramatic flourish, and eliminations often take place in what looks like (and very well could be) a motel lobby.
The U.S. seasons also seem to focus more on the psychological aspects of the game, coercing players to break the rules or otherwise betray one another, forcing them to switch journals mid-game, and having them participate in other psychologically-focused games and challenges. The “mind games” are the aspect of The Mole that makes it unique, and playing that up only makes the show more compelling.
If you’re interested in checking out The Mole, I recommend you be very careful. It’s difficult to find, as most seasons never saw a DVD release. You may have to rely on non-traditional methods, and this may lead you to internet searches. Wikipedia is not shy about revealing the identity of the Mole for each season, and neither are the ancient reality TV show forums that discuss the show. I was even once betrayed by the preview image for the finale of one season: a photo of one player on a red background with the word “MOLE” in big letters on it.
Be very careful if you don’t want to be spoiled. I recommend starting with U.S. Season 1, which is available on DVD through Amazon (along with Season 3, a celebrity version). Don’t read the reviews. I own it, so here’s my review: It’s great, just buy it. And no matter how many episodes you’ve seen, don’t read the comments.
If you do manage to get started on a season spoiler-free, here’s what I recommend: Get a friend to watch it with, and each of you keep a little piece of paper with your notes. At the end of each episode, write down who you think the Mole is and why, but don’t show each other your guess. Keep doing this until the finale, and then compare your notes at the end of the show. See if you were right in the end, and if you caught on to any of the Mole’s sabotage efforts. It’s a fun way to participate in the Guess Who aspect of the game.
(Here’s another fun game to play: How many times can you spot Anderson Cooper eating something during the challenges?)
In the end, I think the most appealing things about the show to me were the unique challenges, like the one that first drew me in. The hotel game (also called “Hitchcock Hotel” in another version) was something that I wanted to experience myself. It was like an adventure video game brought to life.
There’s also something nostalgic about The Mole that reminds me of The Stone. This old piece of millennial media that never really took off and has sort of become hard to access, but is still somehow relevant to the people who love it.