Ask anyone who was there for the early-aughts golden age of reality TV, and they'll tell you that The Mole was one of the elite reality competitions. But while its contemporaries like Survivor, Big Brother, and The Amazing Race have all kept churning out new seasons over the course of two decades, The Mole vanished in 2008.
And then along came Netflix. In one of its few bouts of good publicity this year, the streamer announced a series revival, and from the looks of the five episodes released to the press, The Mole has not only returned, but also enhanced its status as TV's best active-watching experience.
Despite its reputation as the brainy person's reality competition of choice, the show's premise is incredibly simple. A group of contestants are gathered together in a certain location — this season, it's 12 people in the wilds of Australia — and set to accomplish a series of tasks for money. The twist is that one of their company is the Mole, who's working secretly to sabotage their efforts. So while they're trying to win cash, the players also must try to identify and outstmart the Mole. Each episode ends with a quiz about the scoundrel's identity, and the lowest scoring player is eliminated.
CNN's Anderson Cooper (who was working at ABC News when The Mole debuted in 2001) hosted the first two seasons and was perhaps the best reality TV host of his era, but the new season is helmed by MSNBC's Alex Wagner. She steps into Cooper's shoes seamlessly, with an instant gravitas and an obvious enthusiasm for both the players and the gameplay.
But while the host is important, what's always set The Mole apart as a viewing experience is how much it engages the audience in the game it's playing. With most reality competitions, there's a straight line from challenges to eliminations. You can watch along and see who’s doing well and who’s doing poorly, and while the producers control the narratives when it comes to the characters, you can usually track the game portions on your own.
The Mole, however, is defined by suspicion, and when it comes to the audience, the production controls everything: what you see and especially what you don’t see. We're obviously not going to watch the Mole blatantly commit sabotage until the finale; what we get instead, then, is a series of actions by different players that might be calculated or might just be garden-variety failure. Did Osei forget to open the bag with instructions in it because he wanted the team to fail or because he didn't think he was allowed to peek? Did Joi lead her team in the wrong direction because she's a saboteur or because she's bad with maps?
With so much uncertainty, the audience ends up in a competition with the producers, parsing every editing choice and story twist. Would production really show the Mole screwing up that obviously, or was that blatant mistake merely a red herring designed to cast suspicion on the wrong person? If she really were the Mole, would the show devote an episode's worth of subplot to one player trying to make herself look suspicious to gain an advantage? In talking-head interviews, does a certain contestant seem to be subtly bragging about their various sabotages?
These questions encourage viewers to scour the screen for clues. This may be the show that keeps Netflix subscribers from half-watching while scrolling on their phones.
Top-notch production quality also ratchets up the suspense with twists and offers that place the individual players at odds with the team's overall good. How much of the team's winnings would one player sacrifice to keep themselves safe from elimination? The answer may surprise you!
The casting department comes through as well, with a compelling array of competitive and sneaky players whose personalities almost uniformly pop off the screen. Standouts include Will, the Thor-haired brand manager whose personal brand seems to be getting aggro with anybody who doesn't perform the tasks to his standards; Jacob, the firefighter who'd never left the United States before this game and whose aw-shucks Midwestern affect could absolutely be a put-on; Joi, the commercial pilot who quickly establishes herself as having her eye fixed squarely on keeping herself safe in the game; Avori, the ice-blond gamer who always wants to have an angle; and Pranav, who's made peace with the fact that his law-student background makes him seem inherently Mole-ish.
Like Netflix's The Circle, which is similar in format, The Mole will release its full season in three batches. The first five episodes drop on October 7th, followed by three more on October 14th, and then the final two on October 21st. This release pattern should prove especially tantalizing, considering the ruthlessness with which The Mole wields its cliffhangers. Taking full advantage of the freedom streaming affords to screwing with format, the episodes don't end on eliminations, necessarily, but on moments of suspense in the game. That's all well and good when the next episode is a five-second autoplay away, but at the end of that fifth episode, the prospect of a week spent waiting on tenterhooks feels almost cruel.
This is a testament to the show, of course, and how all-consuming it is. All that active engagement gives you some degree of skin in the game. Leaving the answers dangling over the precipice of a week's break can feel excruciating, but with a show as good as The Mole, you can at least have faith that you'll be both satisfied and activated when it returns.
The Mole premieres on Netflix on October 7.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.