CarterMatt Extended: Revisiting ‘The Mole,’ reality TV’s underrated gem, 15 years later

Extended -At some point during this CarterMatt Extended series, it only made sense to write about “The Mole.” This was a series that many out there consider one of the greatest reality competitions ever made; it was the thinking person’s game, one that combined strategy with clue-hunting, observation, and social skills. It was frustratingly for viewers a game where all of the answers were laid out on a table in front of you, leaving you to try to decipher them with little to no success. Who is The Mole? That was the question at the center of it all. Figure it out, and you win the grand prize; fail, and you become terminated from the game at a dramatic, heart-pounding ceremony.

When we first realized earlier this month that this was the 15th anniversary for the show, it was a shock. Reality television has gone in so many directions since, not all of them good, but we like to think that this show had some sort of influence upon the menagerie of shows we now look at across the landscape. It was a trend-setter, a thrill ride, and a concept well before its time.

The origin story

Back in the summer of 2000, a certain show called “Survivor” premiered on CBS, and it would be a waste of time and space to try and discuss its cultural impact. There are thousands of CarterMatt Extended pieces that could be written on that very thing. What matters for the sake of this article was what happened in the months that follow. Networks were in a frenzy trying to capitalize on this brand-new genre of television, ordering anything and everything that they felt was going to be some sort of euqally-worthy concept. Most of them were terrible; there was even a show called “Lost” that was so unmemorable the iconic ABC show was able to use the same name years later without anyone minding.

“The Mole” started casting the same summer that “Survivor” struck gold, and by the fall, the first season was filming. The show premiered in January of 2001, having the sort of quick turnaround you rarely ever seen in TV these days. Later that same year season 2 premiered, but in the aftermath of September 11 and also due to a poor timeslot on Fridays, the show was eventually pulled and delayed until the summer. (It aired in full there.) Low ratings are, unfortunately, something that will be a part of the conversation in this piece often.

Brilliance in betrayal

What “The Mole” did so brilliantly in its early seasons was remove some of the confusion from similar reality shows, where you wondered who was the hero and who was the villain. You had several heroes competing for a grand prize that would be the culmination of all of the money earned on separate missions; then, you would have one villain (Mole), whose job was to sabotage these heroes. There was a jumping-off point and an easy narrative to attach to. From here, the competition became more complicated and strategic intricacies became a part of the equation. Contestants could pretend to be the Mole by sabotaging missions themselves, gauging whether to risk losing money from the pot if it means they could win it in the end. Meanwhile, The Mole also could be deceptive by trying particularly hard in certain missions, effectively throwing contestants off the scent as to their true identity.

No matter what happened during the episode, the rules in the end were the same: At the end of each episode, there was a quiz. Those who answered the most questions correctly stayed, and the one who performed the worst was terminated and immediately was sent home. There was something rather glorious in the way in which the show removed contestants from the equation, rushing them away like they were being pulled into quarantine for a deadly disease.

One other element that made the early two seasons far and away the best was a risky-but-remarkable move at hiring upstart journalist Anderson Cooper to be the host. Many fans of his CNN work may not even be familiar with the notion of him hosting reality TV; after all, he himself distanced himself from the show when they moved on to the watered-down celebrity concept of seasons 3 and 4. He was a fantastic man at the center of the madness, providing lighter moments with the contestants while still knowing when to be serious and when to drop the metaphorical guillotine. Part of the sad reality about a potential revival is that the odds of ever getting him back are slim to none, and understandably so. Getting him to host again would be a key selling point.

What went wrong?

It is hard to pinpoint any one thing beyond the scheduling error of season 2. “The Mole” was never highly-rated to begin with, and suffered somewhat from an avalanche of networks trying to ride the reality TV wave until it crashed onto shore. There was no time for viewer-education or to have them interested in anything other than the next “Survivor,” which premiered at around the same time season 1 was ending its run. Maybe if this concept had been brought forward in 2003 or 2004, when the sameness in the genre began its decline, there could have been a different outcome.

Unfortunately, the decision to go with a celebrity concept was a fatal flaw. While Stephen Baldwin and Kathy Griffin (ironically on the show after Anderson’s departure, given their now-lengthy history on New Year’s Eve) were entertaining television, the surrounding show became watered-down and corny. The missions were less complex, and the questions less difficult. Dennis Rodman managed to be so deceitful in “Celebrity Mole: Yucatan” that he won the season by tricking Mark Curry with a briefcase … and by “so deceitful,” we mean “not deceitful at all.” A good player could have sniffed out Dennis giving up a huge amount of money as a fake Mole a mile away.

In 2008, the show did eventually attempt a comeback with all new players and a concept more similar to the original. It was extremely entertaining; however, it came about once again as a victim of bad timing. It was the summer after the writers strike, when networks were trying to fill their schedule with as much reality programming as possible. As a contestant from a “Beauty in the Geek” season that aired during this time, it is easy to understand why viewers were struggling to get engaged by the time late spring and summer came about: Burnout. There was little new programming other than reality television on networks for many months in the winter, and as the year went on, viewers were largely sick of it and were happy that scripted shows were back. Despite being a solid performer in DVR ratings (rare for the genre), the live ratings were still poor enough that they’d be a disappointment today.

What could have been

Perhaps the biggest shame of losing “The Mole” when we did was losing it right before the golden age of Twitter, Instagram, and social media of that variety. Twitter was around during season 5 (the company is actually celebrating its tenth anniversary this year), but it was after the season around 2009 when it started to hit the mainstream and more and more networks began to take note. Imagine how ABC could have started a social movement there using hashtags, polls, and other tools to facilitate discussion, which is what the show largely thrived on. Message boards were more of the refuge in the early days, and unless you knew where to go, these were hard to find.

Since the show’s re-cancellation in America, the format has been used in other places. Australia had a version that actually ran for six seasons, with its most-recent one airing in 2013. A spiritual successor in “Whodunnit?” came and went on ABC; it was brilliant in its own ways, but suffered in part from subpar promotion and having a concept that, while entertaining if you watched it, probably felt hokey to casual viewers (murder-mystery theater complete with a British butler).

Consider the hole left by the show’s absence; while there may be anywhere between 15 and 20 mystery-oriented scripted shows on network television, how can we not have a reality show catered to the same subject? “Survivor” and “Big Brother” are strategic games, but one with different rules and objectives where you have to rely on the moves made by others; “The Mole” is ultimately a test of your own discernment and skill. “The Amazing Race” has the self-reliance but doesn’t have this consistent intellectual component, and obviously the talent shows all are based on a different sort of merit. It the only game where you know for certain that another person is lying, and your mission is to figure out who it is.

We may remain spoiled with really a flood of other tremendous reality programming, but it is hard still to wonder what both “The Mole,” and also competition reality television, could have looked like had this show had fifteen years to ponder over new concepts and innovations.

If you have never check out past seasons of “The Mole” before, we recommend going on Amazon and checking it out. You can buy the first season for under $12; just don’t go to Wikipedia or anywhere else to see the results in advance. It can be fun to re-watch after you know who the Mole is for extra clues, but it is better to go in the first time blind. (We’ve intentionally not included the results for seasons 1, 2, and 5 in this article. All are worthy of discovery.)

CarterMatt Extended is a feature, comprising of in-depth articles on various TV topics posted every Wednesday night. If you want to sign up for news sent to you every week, you can do so on our Newsletter page.

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