Take the Money and Run: a surprisingly smart show with echoes of The Mole

ABC’s Take the Money and Run debuted last week, and is the first worthy successor to ABC’s awesome early 2000s, Anderson Cooper-hosted series The Mole. While ABC reality shows often tend to be glossy, cheesy, and overproduced, like The Bachelor, this show feels fresh, new, and real.

It’s an intriguing game, and is basically similar to a single challenge on The Mole: Two people hide a briefcase anywhere in a city, and then two detectives and two interrogators have 48 hours to find it, using GPS and cell phone records, plus information they get via interrogations. The show is produced by Bertram van Munster, Jonathan Littman, and Elise Dognieri, creators and executive producers of The Amazing Race, but while it could be pretty derivative of that show, it stands on its own. (Watch it online if you’ve missed the first two episodes; I mention the outcomes below.)

It’s fascinating to watch the contestants figure out the best way to hide the briefcase and create a trail that throws off the investigation, just as it’s interesting how they respond to the interrogators, especially when they get into the game and really screw with the interrogators. Just as The Mole was, at its heart, a game about effective, purposeful lying, this game is about lying, too, although we know the truth, so we’re not being misled.

It’s not a perfect show; it seems imbalanced, as there’s very little of the actual hiding and much more of the interrogation and searching. I’d like to see more of the strategy, and know what the actual rules are (I assume the contestants are required to actually respond to the interrogators, although they can lie). The structure of the show also means we know that there will be no resolution until the last few minutes, so that kind of kills the excitement or momentum of the search and interrogation.

There are parts that are uncomfortable: The show could be called So You Think You’re a Good Criminal, as its focus and stars are the “criminal” contestants instead of law enforcement. The contestants usually have heartwarming stories or reasons for needing the money, and the interrogators are basically like, “He wants the money for his sick dad, but I’m going to make sure he doesn’t get it!” There’s an attempt to make the detectives seem sympathetic, but we’re never really rooting for them.

That’s especially true because the interrogators are the ones who really seem to get information and even solve the case, but they’re not the ones who get the money, the detectives are. If they locate or even accidentally stumble across the briefcase, great, but in the first episode, they only found it because they were directed to the location because one of the contestants broke down—interesting on its own, but not really a victory for the detectives.

There are only six episodes of the show, and I’m interested to see what kind of iterations play out: Will people crack? Will those who are successful totally dumbfound the investigators, as they did in episode two? Will the episodes fall into a familiar rut quickly? I hope not, because there’s a lot of possibility here.

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