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Revisiting 'The Mole': A relic of simplistic early Reality TV

Host Anderson Cooper The Mole
(Image credit: netflix.com)

This post contains spoilers for The Mole.

Reality competition TV shows are complicated. The premise of all shows within the genre are the same: complete difficult challenges on a regular basis, survive eliminations, outsmart your opponents, and win the grand prize. On top of that, though, players navigate manufactured twists, surprise returns from eliminated players, rule reversals, and so much more to earn the title of winner.

But The Mole, the cult classic reality competition series now streaming on Netflix, took a different approach. Originally premiering on ABC in 2001 alongside such juggernauts as Big Brother, Survivor, The Amazing Race, and The Bachelor, the premise for The Mole was so…regular in comparison. People competed in daily challenges to earn money toward a group pot. Among the group of contestants is a “mole,” chosen and coached by the producers to sabotage random challenges throughout the game to prevent the cash pot from growing. In addition to the mole’s sly interference, contestants were also regularly offered exemptions from elimination, typically in exchange for money toward the pot. After every round of missions, competitors took a quiz on the identity of the mole, and whoever scored the lowest was eliminated. The person who identified the mole and scored the highest on the final quiz won the game and the cash pot of earnings from the season. And…that’s about it. No politics, power struggles, or swerves to speak of.

When we think about The Mole’s peers and successors, it boggles the mind to believe such an uncomplicated series made it to air. For contrast, Survivor sees castaways thrown into the wilderness to “outwit, outplay, [and] outlast” their opponents by competing as part of a team and individually in athletic challenges. They fight for resources, luxury getaways, and most importantly power in the form of immunity from elimination. Contestants can win secret “hidden” immunity if they find a specific idol, and can even get a second chance to compete after their elimination depending on the season.

On a show like The Challenge, the general premise is the consistent every season, but the specifics of how opponents reach the end of the game change with every installment. One season may see cast members compete in two large teams. The teams can be fixed for the whole competition, or individual members can earn the chance to switch teams. Most recent seasons have seen people compete in pairs of varying relationship types: exes, rivals, vets and rookies, or free-for-all chosen pairings. Some seasons, players are stuck with their same partners for their whole tenure — if one person is eliminated, the whole team is gone. Others, they can lose their partner in an elimination and choose another partner, or infiltrate another team to steal a partner. These things, along with absolutely awe-inspiring physical games. It’s madness, I tell you!

Returning to The Mole’s first two seasons illuminates how simple the challenges were by today’s standards. Examples of challenges included bungee jumping, skydiving, escaping hunters in a maze, walking over hot coals, and hair dyeing. Although there may have been additional intricacies that accompanied each of these tasks, they could hardly be called extreme. Many of the aforementioned activities are considered tame in the landscape of reality TV today. Yet, what ages The Mole in retroactive viewing is how fear and embarrassment were legitimate reasons for refusal of participation in early reality TV. In one episode, a person refused to partake in a challenge wherein they’d have to wear a diaper and bib in public. Now, being afraid or embarrassed is par for the course in reality completion shows — it’s essentially an expectation upon signing on to a series. Could you imagine shows like Jersey Shore, RuPaul’s Drag Race, or Too Hot to Handle without people willing to make fools of themselves?

In the early 2000s, however, networks had not yet begun to truly push the limits of people’s comforts. People were far less willing to endure potential public shaming for something they’d done on TV. At this time, contestants were truly everyday people, rather than the very attractive, muscular, tanned, and thin people that are cast in reality shows today. Being a competitor on a TV show was a one-and-done deal, instead of a potentially long-term career as it is now. People were unwilling to sacrifice the integrity of their “regular” lives for a TV paycheck because at the time, there was no benefit to doing so. Now, on shows like The Challenge, for example, giving producers memorable and entertaining moments consistently in a season could earn you invites back to future seasons (meaning, more money in the long-term).

The people cast on The Mole were far from Instagram models, and there was also more diversity in age. The show welcomed contestants from their 20s all the way up to their 60s, a fact that likely influenced the smaller physical demands of the daily challenges. It is for this reason that The Mole feels comfortingly accessible to viewing audiences — the game is straightforward in a way that makes you feel like you could play it. For as entertaining as reality competition programs are today, there is an insularity to them. The demands of competition are so high and the contestants so mighty that there’s a distance one feels between themselves and the show’s stars. You get the sense that even for seemingly innocuous shows, cast members have to prep for weeks or months beforehand to participate. With The Mole, it was clear that competitors were simply taking a fun, yet challenging vacation from their own lives. People like Jim, Dorothy, Bill, Jennifer, and Bribs seem like people you’ve met at the grocery store, at the park, or on your neighborhood walk.

Even host Anderson Cooper felt more approachable. Hosting for the show’s first two seasons (notably before he came out as gay), Cooper was charming and surprisingly funny as host. If you watch The Mole for no other reason, it should be to witness Anderson Cooper playfully punch contestants, crack jokes at their expense, and spread eagle on a mattress spring while singing “Tiny Bubbles.” It is humbling to know that someone as renowned in journalism now as The Anderson Cooper is a human with a personality.

Speaking of humility, another astonishing feature of The Mole is how it was nearly impossible for a contestant to lie about major plays in the game. When it came to whether or not to take an exemption — the only real power move a player could make in the game — the player’s final decision was always revealed to the group. They were offered the exemption in secret by Cooper, and acted upon their decision in the corresponding challenge. After the mission was complete, Anderson would earnestly ask the player to reveal their exemption offer to their teammates and their decision for or against taking it. The person was then subjected to the group’s judgment (and potentially, suspicion). Despite deceit being the central conflict of the game, if you weren’t the mole, you never truly got the satisfaction of getting away with much of anything. The game honored honesty and morality, which is quite the opposite of the reality landscape in 2021.

The Mole’s dedication to game first and drama second may have been its downfall. Put simply, the reality TV genre as a whole began to morph into petty, sensationalized, conflict-driven narratives with more conventionally attractive people. Audiences began enjoying celebrity-driven reality TV (i.e., The Surreal Life, MTV Cribs, The Girls Next Door), hence why The Mole’s next two seasons would be celebrity versions. This was likely the series’ last ditch effort at relevancy in a changing genre, hoping that famous folks could stir more drama than regular people. But the attempt was unsuccessful. When the show returned to its original casting format for its final season in 2008, audiences had evolved past its “boring” premise.

Twenty years later, The Mole’s simple concept and production is a stark reminder of how far competition programs have come. I’ve grown to appreciate the complexity — and yes, drama — offered by today’s fare. And as much as I yearn for a reboot of The Mole so others can discover its simplistic excellence, part of me is confident that it will never happen, and that’s okay. Nostalgia is still valid without a reboot. Situated now among scores of competition shows on Netflix, The Mole reminds us that less can still be more — and better.