The Mole first aired 20 years ago, in 2001, and is finally streaming again thanks to Netflix, which has also acquired the format internationally and is filming a new season with American contestants this summer. This summer, I’m re-watching the first two seasons, and recapping, analyzing, and discussing each episode, starting with season 1, episode 1, “Part the First,” which first aired Jan. 9, 2001, on ABC.
The Mole is a remarkable format and show for many reasons, but what stood out to me immediately re-watching its premiere was how it was filmed in the wake of Survivor: Borneo, and actually premiered weeks before Survivor: The Australian Outback.
One month before Stacey Stillman sued CBS, accusing Mark Burnett of rigging the game by convincing other players to keep Rudy Boesch, ABC gave us a reality TV competition in which one of the players literally worked for the producers, actively trying to sabotage the players and keep money from them. The other players’ job was to figure out the identity of The Mole and perform well enough on tests to stay in the game.
While Survivor gave us an island where the contestants smelled like hot garbage, The Mole gave us European cities, starting in France, and gave the players hotel rooms and meals and alcohol. There was new vocabulary to learn: tests (not challenges), players (instead of “Survivors”), a pot (of money), executions (instead of just being voted off the island).
On Survivor, Jeff Probst didn’t immediately find his groove as host. Though he does become more of a presence in season two, both at Tribal Council and hanging out with Colby during rewards, he was pretty scarce in Borneo. But on The Mole, Anderson Cooper is much more of a presence, popping up constantly: wearing a black turtleneck sweater and a brown leather jacket while introducing the show from Janet’s void, leading a champagne toast at dinner in Paris, and even walking the executed player to a car and consoling them.
Before Jeff Probst negotiated with a tribe for more rice, Anderson was negotiating with Jim, Afi, and Kathryn suggested getting immunity. This was Jim’s idea, which he reluctantly admitted to the group: “Maybe we can hold the money hostage to get three exemptions for us.” Jim then reminds the other players that this is ultimately an individual game: “Don’t forget: We are also not a team. … We’re a team and we’re not a team.” This scene and the episode’s reliance on him in interviews makes Jim the stand-out player of the first episode, and while he’s certainly not Richard Hatch, I do wonder if playing up the openly gay strategist player was a conscious choice after the popularity of Survivor’s first season.
While Survivor Borneo had an amazing theme song and great score, it was using the yell from the theme song just to switch scenes. By comparison, The Mole feels significantly more cinematic, with an epic score that echoes an espionage thriller, and adds both tension and excitement without being CYMBAL CRASH heavy-handed. (You can still buy David Michael Frank’s Mole soundtrack.)
The opening is a little clunky, literally starting with a dictionary definition as if it was a high school essay, though the show quickly finds its own voice with the spy movie music and Anderson Cooper explaining the game from his void. We meet the contestants in the Mojave Desert for the first of two tests in the episode. There were actually three; the episode is surprisingly transparent and admits one has been cut for time as part of the disclaimer:
For dramatic purposes the order of the players skydiving has been changed. For time, game play has been edited and one test segment was eliminated. None of these affected the outcome.
In the pantheon of reality TV challenges, the first test, jumping out of a plane is low, and in the pantheon of strategic reality TV, some of the contestants’ early suspicions and declarations are laughably stupid. There’s some weirdness that the editing milks for drama when two players land off-target, but of course, it’s not their fault; they were tandem jumping, after all. The show, via Jim, acknowledges that trying to identify the mole here is just silly. “I don’t think there’s anything that right now points to who it is. It’s still very early in the game. I think the mole would be an idiot to do something so obvious that reveals who he or she is.”
Between the tests, on the way to a hotel, there’s a weird not-really-a-test test when Anderson Cooper sends one van of contestants to repack everyone’s luggage into smaller duffle bags. That felt icky and invasive—though it’s nothing to season two’s premiere—and just an opportunity for the players to fuck with each other, invade each other’s privacy (Wendi and Henry go through Afi’s notes), or illustrate how careless they are (I’m looking at you, one-shoe Charlie).
One thing that differentiates The Mole immediately is that it spends some time with contestants just hanging out, mostly at meals, and when they’re in Paris, they get the chance to explore the city, and we see them walking around and trying to decide where to go. But perhaps because the producers wanted to go to bed, they’re told they have to be back by midnight or they’ll lose $10,000 from the pot. Manuel wants to basically spend that money, saying, “How often do you get to Paris?” (I hope he got to spend more time in the city after his execution.) Jennifer basically accuses Manuel of sabotage for this reasonable request, but they all go to their rooms and don’t lose anything.
The second test is much more complicated, especially compared to the first. The players have to study screens that display data about each other: age, height, shoe size, high school graduation year, birth state, the number of siblings, the number of times their heart’s been broken. That seemed particularly challenging to me, because my memory is terrible, and even watching from my couch I’d have failed that test.
This test is the first time when Anderson Cooper asks the group to select players based on criteria: in this case, selecting the two players with the best memory. I particularly love the way The Mole does that; besides forcing a group decision, it also adds opportunities for players to step up to use their strengths, or for the mole to sabotage. Kathryn and Afi are selected, and have two hours to go get 500 francs out of an ATM, but first have to solve 10 equations to get their pin number. They had an option of getting help from people, but lost 15 minutes for each person they asked for help. Kathryn suggests recruiting Jim, since he speaks French and can help with directions. Once aboard a bike—a bike! a reality competition has people biking around a city in France!—Jim seems directionally challenged.
While they’re successful, they lose $10,000 because the remaining group members broke a rule. In another fascinating turn for a reality competition, Anderson Cooper actually shows the cast footage of them talking about the data on the screens, which they weren’t supposed to discuss. Specifically, Wendi asks Charlie about not having his heart broken, which cost the team $10,000. Having spent so much time studying and memorizing the information on the screens—and probably trying to retain it for quiz purposes—
This is easy to watch but complicated to describe, and is certainly asks viewers for a different level of engagement than just watching people run through an obstacle course. That brings us to the end of the episode, which is also very different: not a host counting votes, but with Anderson Cooper touch-typing names into a computer, and waiting to see if a screen with the show’s logo would turn green or red. The person with the lowest score on the test is Manuel, and he leaves without a word. In a very Floor is Lava kind of way, the episode ends with the players crying and talking about him as if he’s actually dead—and they don’t even get to hug him goodbye. We also see a montage of his greatest moments, which are all from episode one, of course. It’s a great first episode, and even if it doesn’t really offer much by way of identifying the mole, it’s still quite a riveting hour, even 20 years later.
Spoilers! Only read if you know the outcome of season one. While watching the episode, I typed this sentence into this recap: I don’t remember any of the clues, which is fine, because I do remember that they were dumb. Then my husband walked into the room and said, “Kathryn is the mole because she’s the fourth person to arrive and the word ‘mole’ has four letters.” I was flabbergasted, at both his memory—much better than mine, obviously—but because that reminded me of just how dumb the clues were. I went back and watched, and Kathryn is actually the third person shown, unless you count the bus as a person arriving. I just rewatched it over and over and cannot quite figure that out; then again, the clues are dumb. The other clue came from the editing of the memorization task, as Anderson saying “clues about the mole’s identity” overlaps : When Anderson says something about the mole’s identity Anderson says, ” the Mole’s identity”, it shows Kathryn’s profile on the screen. Thankfully, the dumb clues don’t affect what a great show this is.