I did not expect Bravo’s Spy Games to actually be a revival of The Mole, but I also did not expect it to be a tonely confused, vaguely defined competition with some really smart challenges which hint at what it once: an incredibly sharp idea that was chipped away over time to become softer, less distinctive, and more annoying.
Spy Games (Bravo, Mondays at 10) is based on a real-life program that trained civilians to be spies, so there is so much potential. But it ends up being the cast of Below Deck crashing the murder mystery party at The Real Housewives of New York star Dorinda’s house in the Berkshires.
I immediately wondered if some of my disappointment is because of expectation: Of all the reality TV shows announced to premiere in 2020, none excited me more than this one. That was undoubtedly due to its shades of The Mole and its pedigree: its producers include the network executive who worked on the original Mole, and its showrunner was Survivor’s showrunner before Jeff Probst took over.
I’ve seen the first four episodes—half of the season—and in those, there is one spectacular, spy-like challenge, in which the contestants have to break into a house and steal something, that has both thrilling and head-scratching moments from the players.
That challenge is Spy Games at its best, and is exactly what I’d hoped for. I did not hope for a game with undefined rules, nor for a show in which there are two physical altercations early on, and a frustrating villain who would be far more entertaining if there was any reason at all for his antics.
In the first four episodes, there’s another spy-ish challenge, including in the premiere, when the cast members have to infiltrate a party and get phone numbers from a group of unsuspecting attendees. Then there are two challenges that test the contestants’ mastery of skills, which are well-executed, though somewhat of a letdown in comparison.
Connecting all of this is a competition: a $100,000 prize for the last wannabe spy standing. One player is eliminated each week by a trio of experts, who evaluate their performance.
Besides weekly eliminations, the players are given a simplistic season-long task: to figure out each other’s “secrets” (a single fact about each of them), which is used in one assessment and gets far too much attention for something that has zero payoff in four episodes.
The Spy Games cast call their alliances “networks” (usually; sometimes they call it an alliance) and say things like “I’m starting to wonder if she has loyalty to our network” and “keeping the network alive is still important.”
But why? What is the game they’re playing? Why is it important to be allied with someone? There is absolutely no information about that. Eliminations are handled by a team of experts, kind of like Project Runway, and so there’s no strategic game here (yet?).
The contestants seem to think they’re on Big Brother, though. They’re assuredly Bravo reality stars, not Top Chef or Project Runway contestants, leading with personality and not skill. That leads to moments of comedy and drama, but only comically childish spying.
While I certainly did not expect any of them to be master spies in episode one, there is so much bumbling about I actually wondered if they knew this was a show about learning the skills of espionage and tradecraft.
The most interesting thing to emerge from the attention on personalities and the contestants’ life in their mansion is a theft, which is fascinating and sends a lot of people into a several-episode spiral. Yet it ends up being the Top Chef equivalent of one chef stealing another chef’s Ove Glove.
The players get trained in espionage, and some challenges test the skill they’ve learned directly (e.g. lock-picking, via a really fun obstacle course). Sometimes, though, the advice they get is like, “don’t freeze up.” That’s like sending me into the Project Runway workroom and saying Don’t leave any seams showing. How would I even know where to begin?
The judges, called “assessors”—former CIA agent Douglas Laux, former Secret Service special agent Evy Poumpuras, and former FBI agent Erroll Southers—have impressive credentials, and grow into their roles.
Their conversations with the bottom two, which take place at a table not unlike the boardroom on The Apprentice, often unravel some interesting backstory about players, and they evaluate various aspects of the players’ performance in the challenge and what’s happened at the house.
Again, though, the show suffers from a lack of an overarching structure, at least one that is clear to me. The assessors’ criteria shift; one episode they reward someone who didn’t complete a task first, and then an episode or two later they’re annoyed at people who don’t finish a task, and the episode doesn’t acknowledge why they’re valuing one thing over another. (Both Erroll and an executive producer explained the rationale for this to me later; see our interview below.)
The oddest part is that both the assessors and host Mia Kang appear to have been teleported in from a completely different show: one that actually takes all of this seriously, even in the context of a reality competition. The assessors warm up over four episodes, to each other and to the contestants, but Kang in particular is so stern that it becomes discordant with the cast’s antics.
Launching a brand-new format in 2020 Hollywood is not easy, and first seasons take time to find their footing. My sense watching these episodes was that the show had a vision that was disrupted, possibly during production but definitely during post-production, when it become unnecessarily Bravo-fied, as if there was fear Bravo viewers wouldn’t love it so the show was pushed into a weird corner that’ll offer full satisfaction to neither Bravo Housewives fans nor Mole/competition fans.
The Mole had humor and an awareness of its own occasional ridiculousness, but it also had a clearly defined game and a lane. Spy Games is just veering all over the highway. I really hope it can find its way.
A Spy Games producer and assessor talk about the Bravo show
I’m always interested in learning more about how a show came together, and why a show is like it is, and there is a lot I like about Spy Games. With that in mind, I interviewed Dr. Erroll Southers and Eric Detwiler, Kinetic Content’s executive producer in charge of programming.
The idea was developed internally at Kinetic, and when executives there found out about Station S, “it seemed like an interesting premise for a modern-day reality show that civilians would be taken in, trained, and taught how to become spies,” Detwiler told me.
While The Mole was mentioned, that was “only in passing. “We certainly talked about it because of [former ABC executive John Saade]’s connection to that show, but I think that everyone did a really good job at making Spy Games its own thing.” (Saade has a deal with Kinetic.)
“Some people have scratched their heads, like, Why there is a show like Spy Games on Bravo? Bravo’s other taken big swings at competition reality in the past—notably Project Runway and Top Chef. It really comes down to the characters and the tone of the show,” Detwiler said.
“The characters are Bravo characters to a T; they exemplify all the things you might see on a Bravo ensemble doc cast, what they bring to the table.”
I completely agree with that, and told Southers that, after watching four episodes, I wasn’t convinced that this group was spy material.
“There were moments,” Southers said, when he felt the same way, but the assessors were also looking at the “long game,” and actually appreciated the drama in the house: “We were also looking to see what kind of situational tension would come up between them, to see how they would use it.”
Southers appreciated the cast, and was “really impressed with how diverse the backgrounds were with those 10 people.”
“I actually think this is better, because I don’t know that Station S in World War II went out and found veterans or athletes or people who had an incredibly high intellect or academic aptitude,” he said. “We did that.”
Spy Games’ criteria
So how were the contestants judged, exactly?
The key for Detwiler was the answer to the question, “Who has the skills to be a spy?” he said. “Obviously, Erroll and Doug and Evy all have different opinions about that means. And a lot of it came down to what they thought their potential would be: Would these people be in an actual training program?”
The lack of criteria and information for the contestants—and thus for the audience—was by design.
“We didn’t want to give them too many clues with regards with how to perform. We were really testing some ingenuity and testing some people who could think outside the box. They needed to learn that this is like a chess game,” Southers said.
Producers, he added, “left the three of us to our own experience and expertise to decide. In the end, we were thinking about—as Doug would always say—who could we course-correct? None of these people are spies. Who has the most raw talent and initiation that we could course-correct and mold them into what we want them to be. So we were looking at potential; I think that’s probably the best way to describe it.”
“I wanted them to trust me, I wanted them to have confidence in me, but I didn’t want them to get comfortable and think, Okay, I got it—I know exactly what that guy wants,” he added.
Southers compared that to Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru exercise, “where Captain Kirk cheated but he won,” he said. “We were okay with that: If someone thought outside the box, and decided to do certain things, okay, mission accomplished. That was fine. So that’s why the rules weren’t really there. There was nothing they couldn’t do, and some of them realized that.”
I wish more of that would have ended up on screen: that idea that this ambiguity is the point.
When I asked Detwiler about the lack of consistent judging criteria, he said, “I like the flexibility and the unpredictability of it. … I like that it kept the contestants on their toes. The world’s evolving around them all the time; the rules seem to change because it’s whatever these three assessors deem is most important to them at that particular time. That’s challenging for them to figure out: How do I operate in that game? Are alliances or networks important or not? And does it really matter, ultimately?”
That the cast doesn’t know what’s happening is kind of the point. “I like that, the idea that they’re trying to figure out this game,” he said. “They’re all students of these types of shows. I think they formed alliances thinking, Well, that’s just what you do.”
The producers decided to “put these people in this environment and see what they do. Let’s not give them too many rules,” he added. “I think with a different group of people or in a season two, when people have watched the show, it’s going to be played completely differently.”
Producers briefed the assessors with “intel every day several times a day,” Southers said. “We knew what all of them were doing.”
The assessors chose the two worst-performing contestants and then talked with them, conversations that were similar to the length of a Survivor Tribal Council: They “went on for, at minimum, 30 to 45 minutes to an hour sometimes,” he said.
Then the assessors talked about it together, and with the production team. “It was tough. We went back and forth.”
I asked if the network or production leaned on the assessors to make certain kinds of decisions. “There was some leaning,” he said. “There were some people who may have stayed a mission longer that we would have wanted them to, but we comprised. In the end, they did say: It’s up to you.”
“But there was some leaning because we understood good television; we were trying to understand credibility,” Southers added. He said that he was conscious of how that would appear. “Our colleagues are going to watch this; we’re going to get phone calls and e-mails saying, Wait a minute, you let this person go to the next mission? Really? We had that conversation between ourselves quite often as we had some leaning about what would look good on the screen.”
Detwiler said that conversations with the assessors were “to understand their strategy,” and so producers could “remind them of any pertinent story beats that had happened in the episode leading up to those final two.” The production also “heard them out to make sure the logic felt sound to us; that we could support their decision with the content that we have in the can, and the answer’s always yes.”
The assessors and their chemistry
Since there’s no head judge, Detwiler added that the production wanted to “make sure that each of the three of them had their own voice,” but ultimately that wasn’t a concern, even when they disagreed with each other: “those three really did click and got along really well, on and off camera.”
Southers currently directs both the Safe Communities Institute and the Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies program at the University of Southern California, where he now teaches. He has done television before, often as an expert in specials and documentaries to talk about his areas of expertise.
When Spy Games was cast, Southers told me there was a day-long chemistry test, with seven potential people who were put into various combinations of three throughout an entire day.
“When Evy and Doug I got together,” Southers said, their connection was immediate. “It’s like you’ve been together your entire career,” he said, adding that they’re now like family, and stay in touch.
The assessors knew the general premise of the series, and gave some feedback on challenges/missions during pre-production: “Tell us what’s not good about this. How could this before? How could we tweak this? It was rare—almost never—that we said this won’t work,” Southers said.
“The only concern the three of us had is we don’t ever want to do anything to embarrass our former organization. I would never do anything to embarrass the Bureau,” he said.
Spy Games’ structure and showrunner
The contestants were given a list of secrets, and dossiers in which to record intel on each others, to try to match the secret with the person. I asked Detwiler where that came from.
“It was just a way to get some story going in the house, and to let the competitors know that the game is not just about the missions,” he said.
While Top Chef and Project Runway have brief time at contestants’ living space, in those shows, “it’s all about the challenge. This show is not that way.”
One show that also combines challenges and strategy is Survivor, and its former showrunner, David Burris, is the showrunner of Spy Games.
“David brought a lot of experience to the show, working in a competition-elimination format,” Detwiler told me. “There was a lot of knowledge that he had about how [Survivor] works, and then trying to apply it to our format—it’s a whole new thing.”
Burris worked to produce “missions that are also producible for television and are safe for the contestants to experience,” Detwiler said.
He added that Burris “has great creative mind; he certainly has a deep knowledge and interest of espionage. The passion of that subject matter and his ability to connect with the assessors was super-important, [as were] his writing skills in terms of being able to script out our intros for challenges, and to think creatively about what the challenges should be.”
The tone of Spy Games
Host Mia Kang’s rather serious approach filled “a certain need to set a tone of seriousness even though the show is fun and has plenty of humorous moments in it,” Detwiler said. “I think keeping the competitions in a zone where they take it very, very seriously was key to actually opening up the humor in the show.”
That tone—espionage combined with jocularity—”is certainly something that made itself apparent in the post-production process,” Detwiler said. “Out in the field, when it was being captured” there was humor, “but it wasn’t necessarily our intention to make a hybrid comedy/dramatic show. And I don’t think the show is necessarily a straight comedy in any way. There are humorous elements to it. We found that tone of the show after it was done filming as we started crafting the episodes. What’s going to make the most entertaining show?”
There was a danger in making Spy Games too earnest. “They’re not going to become actual spies; it’s a game,” he said. “Watching them play a game that has, at times, an undefined set of rules, and watching how they react to that is probably the most interesting part of the show.”
“We just wanted to test different elements of what would go into being a spy—whether it’s ingenuity or deception or a hard skill like lock picking. We just tried to make every episode unique,” he said.
“I’m excited about the show; I’m really proud of the show,” Detwiler told me. “It’s something very, very different, and we’re not always afforded the opportunity to do something different in our work, and to go in and just create something completely new was a lot of fun, and having the support of Bravo to really push and try something different. They weren’t afraid to just go for it.”