“The Mole” is your next reality TV obsession.
Netflix has rebooted the competition series, which originally premiered in 2001 on ABC. Anderson Cooper, Ahmad Rashad, and Jon Kelley hosted throughout the series’ seven-year run. Alex Wagner hosts the Netflix reboot, which is now streaming.
The basic premise of “The Mole” is that a group of contestants complete various physical and mental challenges in order to win cash prizes — but one of them is a mole, tasked by producers with sabotaging the missions and not getting caught by the other competitors. Each mission includes twists where contestants can add more money to their collective prize pot or personal gain, as well as risk losing it all for the group. After each mission, contestants take a quiz to see how much they know about the mole, and the person with the most wrong answers is eliminated.
The actual game aspect of “The Mole” can be dense at times, but viewers need not task themselves with understanding every rule of each mission up front. As with the most challenging of games, things fall into place once players are in action — and watching them in action is the most entertaining part. The challenges include trekking through river rapids, stealing cargo from moving trains, and hiking through the forest, usually to retrieve cases full of cash prizes (or in one case, gold). It doesn’t matter their specific tasks or how much money they stand to gain so much as if they complete challenges on time and without ruining the game for others.
Reality is one of the main genres of comfort TV, whether it’s the simplicity of watching contestants answer trivia questions or the utter chaos of something like “Love is Blind.” (Yup, also on Netflix.) “The Mole” hits a different but powerfully satisfying note with its convoluted challenges, mind games, and sabotage. It’s both cerebral and physical — even when viewed from the couch — an interesting confluence of 2022 itself, where everyone has experienced being trapped indoors and craving mental exercise via games and apps. It will have viewers itching to go to an escape room or pick up Wordle and its many offshoots, or book a vacation that involves lots of hikes just to feel the adrenaline these players seem drenched in. When the players crack codes based on the periodic table or figure out how magnetic chess pieces, a stool, and mysterious photographs all work together, the audience gets to play along.
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“The Mole” isn’t immune to reality TV tropes — to heroes and villains, to melodramatic editing, to people who act out when there’s a camera in front of them. But all of these are staples of the genre, borderline unremarkable so many years into reality TV’s chokehold on pop culture — and “The Mole” cuts out a lot of the interpersonal drama in favor of missions, gameplay, and chances to speculate about who is or isn’t the mole. When it comes to the prize money or avoiding elimination, players will stop at nothing to save their own skin and are refreshingly up front about it, even while playing coy about their mole status. Reckless acts like these increase with each episode, amping up the stakes and suspense.
But if anything, the reality-TV drama could be dialed up; because of the show’s dense competition element, it loses the chance to luxuriate in player-on-player drama, conversation, and downtime. Early on, a player claims one of her fellow competitors as a friend, a relationship that comes up repeatedly, but which “The Mole” never really shows viewers because it’s busy having them break out of jail, rob fake banks, and retrieve cargo from the bottom of the ocean. In one scene, the players go swimming at their house, a welcome change of pace in which they’re still sniffing out the mole, but also enjoying each other’s company. Later on, Wagner introduces a challenge in which they simply lie to each other to win immunity from the quiz, and it’s one of the most tense and compelling scenes so far. While the remaining five episodes may not deviate from this structure, future seasons can and should luxuriate in those slower moments to build character and relationships. Dom is one of the few contestants to create a genuine audience connection, talking about his mother and how he’ll bring her the prize money if he wins, while most others remain blank slates beyond a name and occupation even after five episodes. It might be that getting to know people is simply not baked into “The Mole”s premise after more recent seasons roped in celebrity contestants — but establishing connections to the audience is key to a show’s popularity and longevity.
“The Mole” comes expertly packaged. There is no way that competing teams are completing every challenge within seconds of each other, that people aren’t hamming it up for the cameras and each other — but its just plain old fun to buy into for a 45-minute episode or five. Series director Kate Douglas-Walker and team focus on making the game play digestible, against the gorgeous backdrop of Australian nature and history. Viewers can enjoy the added audience element of constantly trying to identify the actual mole through clues in editing, production design, and more. The mole’s identity is ambiguous enough for viewers to debate and theorize week-to-week in ways that weren’t available or even possible when the original aired, in the world before “Lost” and “Game of Thrones” and intense online discourse — like with the QR code Netflix launched after Episode 5 for viewers to take the quiz and see if they’re close to figuring out the mole’s identity. The first batch of episodes make for an easy weekend binge, and Netflix’s multi-episode weekly drops allow for a smart mix of episodic and seasonal viewing. This one revival could kickstart a whole new batch of reality programming for Netflix — unless someone sabotages it.
“The Mole” Episodes 1-5 are now streaming on Netflix. Episodes 6, 7 and 8 premiere on October 14 followed by 9 and 10 on October 21.
Disclosure: The author of this piece is an acquaintance of one of the contestants, Pranav Patel, on Netflix’s “The Mole” Season 1.
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