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 2, “Part the Second,” which first aired Jan. 16, 2001, on ABC.
Producers kidnapping one of the cast members of a reality show is a bold move, even if the presentation is rather hokey, with men in masks sneaking around the hotel’s property before entering Steven’s room and covering his head. I assume Steven was actually told what was happening by a producer, and that the masked men part was for our benefit, because otherwise, that’d be terrifying!
At breakfast, Steven is missing, Jim reports that he woke up and went to the bathroom, and then saw people walking around in the hall—and when he looked out his peephole, someone covered it with tape. The cast seems to be playing along, and even goes to knock on Steven’s door. Again, I’m curious how much they were told versus not told, though season one is making the start of some of its tests explicitly clear and others begin in more furtive ways.
Anderson Cooper calls the players and explains the test, though he also commits to the conceit that Steven has been kidnapped. They meet Anderson, who’s at a little coffee shop in Monaco, where they see video of Steven, and then get a 30-second phone call with him. Then they split up to search by helicopter, boat, and van.
This is an outstanding challenge, a combination of escape room and scavenger hunt. There are clues in each of their vehicles, but two of the three teams miss those. Alas, despite getting an explicitly clear clue from Steven that he can see actual canons—never mind the video they see of him in an iron mask, which I can’t believe someone didn’t connect to the fact that they were in France. (Fun fact I just learned while Googling: the actual Man in the Iron Mask just had velvet covering his face, not an actual contraption like Steven’s. Though it seemed like Steven might have been the Man in the Plastic Mask.)
The players end up wandering around the wrong castle in Monaco even after Anderson Cooper tells them they’re wrong, which is baffling. And there’s some other weird behavior: Afi and Kathryn keep searching despite not seeing canons, and Jim takes the van and leaves them behind. Meanwhile, the people on the boat do basically nothing except hold up binoculars. Is this editing, or actual suspicious behavior, and what are they doing? Afi is the player executed in this episode, which is because she’s scored the lowest on the test, but I still wish this scene and others had given us a better sense of her mole suspicions.
Eventually, the players figure out they have to go to Cannes, but Anderson also has to give them more information, like that they need to unite their keys in their respective vehicles, and that the boat needs to bring the van team to the island. And their confirmation that they’re at the right location only comes when they see Anderson Cooper standing on the roof of the prison on Île Sainte-Marguerite island.
They still fail, by about five minutes. This is pinned on Jennifer going to try to meet the other team members but going to the wrong place, which leads to more conflict between her and Henry. They yell at each other while Jim frees Stephen, and there appears to be real friction. “It’s not like playing sports, guys. This is mentally challenging,” a teary Jennifer says later, in the black void from which the contestants do their confessional interviews. This does sound very challenging, trying to work with strangers while getting to know them even as some people are actively or just accidentally sabotaging the effort to make money.
The comic stylings of Anderson Cooper
The second test is creative, but much simpler. Anderson tells them to divide into teams of three leaders, three followers, and three people with a good eye. They must identify which is a real Cartier watch and which is a fake. But Anderson won’t just tell them if they’re right or wrong. The Mole has a flair for the dramatic, and so someone will literally shoot the watch they identify as a fake. If the real watch is destroyed, they have to buy it, e.g. lose $20,000 from the pot.
During this test, Charlie sneaks around the crew’s production vans, but is so bad at sneaking around he has no idea he’s being filmed the whole time. “I wouldn’t get in there if I were you,” a producer or camera operator says as Charlie touches the van’s door handle, and he walks away like a kid pretending they weren’t just caught red-handed.
There’s so much more comedy in this second test, starting with the players trying to get help from people who don’t speak English. Kate tells one person, “We’re playing a fun game.” It is a fun game, Kate! It’s also fun to see the watch be shot, especially because it’s been mounted on a container full of paint, so there’s an immediate visual confirmation of whether they’re right or wrong.
The best moments in this test come from Anderson Cooper. As I wrote about in my episode one review, the show was filmed in the wake of Survivor’s first season, in which Jeff Probst didn’t do challenge commentary and was barely a presence at Tribal Council. The Mole made the bold decision to have Anderson Cooper hanging around all the time, and it is, of course, a brilliant move. Here, it produces some of my some of my favorite moments from season one, as Anderson watches as players run by. We see him three times, in a sequence that is edited perfectly because it heightens his actions each time, increasing the comedy. First he’s sitting; then he’s standing and looking at his watch (SHADE); and then finally, eating a baguette and leaning against a wall, where he throws more shade: “It makes you wish you’d studied French, doesn’t it?” It’s so ridiculous Kathryn literally bops him on the arm as she goes past. The editing does appear to be out of chronological order. Anderson has a nearly full baguette as he leans against the wall, but in the scene before that, with him looking at his watch, his bread is nearly gone:
I started to notice that Anderson Cooper also does a lot of narration, which I tend not to love in reality TV, because it often substitutes for clear story. While Anderson’s narration is expository, it does a good job of linking scenes together—though you can also feel the producers’ heavy hands when Anderson calls things out, such as “cautious friendships are developing” or “Kathryn insists on calling another store for verification.”
There’s a third and final test in this episode, but it’s a dud. It’s a version of an iconic challenge that began in Survivor’s second season, where one player guides blindfolded players around a course. The Mole’s version is more like a video game: players who are categorized as “followers” are led through a corn field by a player categorized as a “leader,” who is watching on a monitor and can see an overhead view of the maze. The leader has to guide their follower to the exit and away from the Temple Guards.
All three teams fail, in part because their communication equipment seems to suck. I wondered if that’s what’s being referenced in this episode’s disclaimer:
Game sequences have been edited for time, and due to technical difficulties, time was added to one test and an additional trial was allowed, but not shown, in another test. None of these elements affected the outcome.
It doesn’t specify which tests these are referring to, but the “additional trial” sounds like it could refer to the corn field, because it doesn’t make sense for the other two tests. I still find these disclaimers remarkably transparent for a reality competition, and I wonder how much of that is a response to the criticism and controversy over Survivor’s first season. Regardless, it’s one of many decisions that make The Mole such an outstanding show.