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The Mole’s producer answers all my questions about Netflix’s season

The Mole’s producer answers all my questions about Netflix’s season
Alex Wagner, at her computer, probably not writing critical recaps of The Mole like I was doing. (Image via Netflix)

Netflix’s revival of The Mole in the United States has now finished its first season, the sixth to air in the United States.

As a fan of the original, I was so thrilled to have the series back—and there was also a lot that I was critical of and/or curious about.

Thankfully, Eureka Productions CEO Chris Culvenor, who’s also an executive producer on The Mole, was willing to answer my questions about what happened behind-the-scenes, from the use of host Alex Wagner to the age of the cast, the confessional ADR to theming challenges.

I’m grateful for the insight, and also for this season of The Mole! As Culvenor explained, this season was challenging in part because it needed to appeal to both Mole fans like me and to people who’d never heard of the Anderson Cooper version, which first aired 21 years ago.

Our conversation follows, with my questions in bold and his answers in regular type. The transcript has been lightly edited and condensed to clean up human speech.

Chris Culvenor, CEO of Eureka Productions
Chris Culvenor, CEO of Eureka Productions

Andy Dehnart: I know from reading your pre-interviews, and also seeing your social media, that The Mole is one of your all-time favorite shows, and that you also pitched a version of the show. Obviously, it was successful pitch!

What was your idea for how you wanted to change it? Especially as a fan of the original, what did you think needed to be adapted to bring it into 2021 or 2022?

Chris Culvenor: Yeah, it’s a great question. I was initially a fan of the Australian version, because I grew up in Australia, so that’s how my introduction was to The Mole. I have watched the Anderson Cooper series, but I’m less in-tune with that, and I only became more accustomed with that the more and more I got interested in reimagining the format.

Everyone could see just this continued interest in true-crime documentary, and I think the Netflix documentary Don’t F With Cats was this great example of armchair sleuths solving this mystery together. I was trying to think about how you could capture that phenomenon and that interest, and then I just kept coming back to the show that did it the best.

We went to the original format holders, and we made a pitch to them. That pitch was not about necessarily ripping it apart and starting it again, but modernizing it slightly.

I think my initial pitch was all about: there’s so many great action, adventure movies and thrillers out there, that people are aware of and people have sentimental and nostalgic attachment to. If we could reboot the series and, through these tests, take a lot of those pop culture moments, that’s a way to reintroduce this great format to a new audience.

They liked that pitch: let’s keep the core of the show, but let’s try and give it this modern connection that a lot of people will relate to.

That was very similar to the pitch I did with Netflix. The blessing and the curse with this fantastic format is you have so many diehard fans who love and care for it so much. But then you have a whole bunch of people who don’t know the show at all. So trying to thread that needle, to make sure that you satisfy the diehard fans but then also make it palatable, [that] was really the challenge that I think, for the most part, we achieved.

I’ve actually read a bunch of your thoughts, and I think there’s some fantastic things there for season two. It’s just about trying to make that balance right—and that was all part of the pitch, too: appealing to the original fans, but also opening this great format for a wider audience.

As one of those original fans—it’s the only reality show I ever applied to, which will give you a sense of how much meaning it has to me—it’s interesting to think about challenges as having themes. One of my pieces of criticism of the new season is that it’s lacking the espionage, thriller theme that crossed all episodes.

Do you think [your version] has an overarching theme? Or were you purposely going for a maybe more—I don’t want to say generic, because that sounds too critical—but like more of a middle-ground, average reality show, instead of something that’s a little more niche?

It’s a great question. I hear that criticism about having that central—whether it’s music or other elements—overarching hook. We might have ended up there because we went there thematically on the challenges—touchstone pop culture moments in the challenges, but at the expense of an overarching tone.

Test one, it’s Lost, right? That’s what we had in our head. Then you have a bank heist. I think that’s what we were leaning into, how we could make every episode feel totally different, so you went on this wild ride and adventure. I do hear the the note for season two about potentially creating even more of an arc between the entire series as well.

There’s something about that music in those first few seasons that just spoke The Mole immediately to me.

We talked a lot about music, and when to use it and when to not. You look at some of those old-school reality shows—not necessarily The Mole—and they go wall-to-wall music and tell you how to feel. One of the things that we were quite interested in doing is, at times, pulling back to give it more of a raw sense.

The music is one of those things with season one you’re always refining, and I think for the most part, the team did a fantastic job of scoring it. But I think giving it consistency is a nice idea, too.

The Mole Netflix season 1 players (from left to right): Avori Henderson, Sandy Ronquillo, Dom Gabriel, Greg Shapiro, Kesi Neblett, Samara White, Pranav Patel, Will Richardson, Casey Lary, Osei White, Joi Schweitzer, and Jacob Hacker
The Mole Netflix season 1 players (from left to right): Avori Henderson, Sandy Ronquillo, Dom Gabriel, Greg Shapiro, Kesi Neblett, Samara White, Pranav Patel, Will Richardson, Casey Lary, Osei White, Joi Schweitzer, and Jacob Hacker (Photo by Julian Panetta/Netflix)

Talk to me about the casting process. I think the cast you ended up with was very diverse in background, race, gender, all of those things, but not so much in age. I’m wondering if that was intentional, either for a demographic purpose, or just is that just the cast that you ended up with because that’s who applied?

That was a decision that we made with along with Netflix about the age age range. It was more about getting a cast that was going to bring different POVs to the game and different approaches to gameplay than it necessarily was about anything else.

[On] The Mole, more than any show, chemistry is super-key. We had a lot of fun talking about, through casting, getting that chemistry right. I think it’s one of the best casts that—as Eureka—have ever put forward.

I’m biased, of course, but I think it’s just a tremendous cast. There’s so many likable people, there’s so many redeemable people, there’s so many funny people, there’s so many charming people. And the way that they play the game—just watching the edit continues to crack me up.

The age range was a specific brief when we went out, and then we wanted to find, as you said, great diversity of background, character, personality as well.

Thinking about the planning stage, and in terms of the challenges, the max they could have won was a quarter million [dollars]. As The Mole producers, do you imagine that they can actually make $250,000? Or is that top level a fantasy they’ll never reach, like the $1 million was in the first ABC versions? If so, why did you why did you cap it [at $250,000], and keep [amounts] lower for the challenges?

I think the amount of money’s something we’ve thought about, and I think for season two we’ll re-look at as well.

When you’re rebooting a show, you actually never know how well or not a cast is going to do. We put that cap in place; we had our challenges and our rules in place. But I think the one thing we can’t account for is how good or bad they are, and also how much sabotage or not there’s going to be.

We probably knew that they wouldn’t necessarily hit that max amount, but we probably thought they might have been a bit higher than they ended up with. People are always playing the game. People are always sabotaging; the mole is obviously sabotaging.

So it was a great learning experience for us as producers, and I think it’s something we’ll re-look at in season two. More than any other show, this show is a hard one to map out from a prize potential because you’ve always got people working against you.

Joi Schweitzer and Will Richardson, the last two players standing at the end of a test on Netflix's The Mole episode 5
Joi Schweitzer and Will Richardson, the last two players standing at the end of a test on Netflix’s The Mole episode 5. (Photo by Netflix)

Were you surprised at how much sabotage there was from the non-mole cast and in particular, maybe how much financial cost that was? Joi’s decision, obviously, is the biggest [example], but there were plenty of others, too.

I think that’s the lovely thing about the game. As much as producers love to think we have control of a show, more than any other show, the cast continued to surprise us. It’s fair to say I was surprised at how some people played the game, but I was delighted as well.

That decision by Joi, it was a great TV moment, and you can’t get more real and raw reactions than that reveal. And she was such a fantastic cast member and got so far in the game, so she did something right, obviously.

To touch back on the challenges for a moment: a lot of them are adapted from other versions. I’m curious about the process of adapting them: what you take, what you don’t. Did you not want to just copy [tests] exactly because you want to put your own spin on them, whether it’s a classic challenge or just one that you loved?

We had a fantastic challenge team on this show, and we worked very closely with the Belgian format creators. Every challenge was discussed at length with them; they gave us a lot of their favorite challenges. We obviously looked at a lot of the challenges over the different seasons in the many, many different countries.

We didn’t want to just photocopy them. Sometimes, it’s the same premise but in a different location, or maybe with a different skin. So there was a little bit of adapting. There was obviously some new ideas thrown in as well.

At the end of the day, it comes down to working with Netflix, working with the team at Eureka, and then working with the format creators and saying: What is going to be the most fun here? What’s going to be great payoff for the contestants, but for the audience as well?

Overall, I’m really proud of the tests and the challenges; I think they did a great job. I love the fact that they’re not just physical challenges and mental challenges, but the moral dilemmas are something that I love about The Mole in general.

The interesting thing about the challenges is you’re always thinking of the moments that are going to open themselves for sabotage. I generally think the simplest and the best challenges are ones that are super-simple, but give lots of opportunity for sabotage or failure. Then it’s great for the audience to play along.

Alex Wagner, host of Netflix's The Mole, in its first episode
Alex Wagner, host of Netflix’s The Mole, in its first episode.

Talk to me about using Alex. Obviously she came in and introduced [the tests], but then she wasn’t present for most of them. Maybe this is me clinging to my nostalgic love for the Anderson Cooper version, but often he was hanging out—and he especially leaned into that persona in the second season. Did you purposely keep her separated for most of them in order to let [the players] do things on their own? Or was there another production reason?

We tried to include her for the ones that made sense for her to be included. The ones that obviously come to mind: the dossier discussion, her on the microphone during the red button [test].

I don’t know if we always got it right, but I think our sense was use Alex where it made sense to have her there. But we met didn’t just want her standing on a beach watching people circle on a plane, either. It was just us trying to use her in ways that she should authentically be there.

She’s such a great talent that, the more Alex the better, in many ways.

Was she there and sort of champing at the bit to get into these moments?

A) she’s just a lovely person, so personable, but B) she’s got this great journalistic mind and such curiosity as well, so she was super-involved, and super-invested the whole way through it.

Host Alex Wagner at dinner with the players on Netflix's The Mole
Host Alex Wagner at dinner with the players on Netflix’s The Mole. (Photo by James Gourley/Netflix)

So I know from the cast on Twitter and elsewhere that the long dinners with Alex were a part of their experience, and those didn’t make the edit except for a few moments—the “shithead mole,” for example.

Obviously you have to condense hundreds of hours into these episodes, but why was there not as much of that casual interaction, either with Alex or between the contestants?

Honestly, you’ve touched on it. A lot of it has to do with runtime and getting the episodes—which can be quite unwieldy if you don’t edit them down to a point that is snappy, quick, and is going to keep the audience transfixed.

It’s something I’d love to add more of in season two, because I think there is huge value there. There were great moments that, unfortunately, we had to lose. We can’t have two-hour episodes.

It’s just finding that sweet spot. Maybe in season two, as we talk about it, maybe a couple less challenges and more dinner party moments is something we’d absolutely consider.

For me, it felt like there were a lot of confessional moments. If it was my edit to do, I would pull back on those!

So, I wanted to touch on those. With reality TV, I’m used to some ADR from a host to add clarity or make a narrative connection or whatever. But what was especially noticeable for me this season was all the contestant ADR, and these scripted lines that seemed to explain what they were talking about or thinking, or created some narrative tissue.

I’m wondering: Why was there so much ADR? Was there a fear that viewers weren’t going to be able to follow what was happening?

There’s probably a few reasons why you noticed that. More than any other show that certainly we’ve done, this has probably been the most difficult to edit, because it can go so many different ways.

Every single person on that cast probably has one—but maybe three people—they suspect at one time. And every single challenge they do, they’re noticing different things. So as much as I would love us to be able to capture all that story in the moment at that time, it’s somewhat not possible.

Once you get in the edit, and the storylines become clear, and those levels suspicion that people are putting out there become clearer, you need to make sure you have the pieces for that to make sense to the audience.

That’s probably where you noticed it a bit. All of it’s completely legitimate story, and all of it is directly relating to the the authentic storylines, but we might not have got the bite that was going to thread that needle in the edit.

The confessionals were all about trying to let an audience who might not necessarily have played The Mole before, give them a little bit more of a handholding of how to play and what is going through the contestants’ heads. That probably comes down to threading that needle between the OG Mole fans and the new ones. And once again, season one, we’re calibrating it, but that’s really where it comes from.

I understand and appreciate that, and also can’t quite imagine how challenging it is to put this together.

You’re really cutting two things. We don’t make Survivor, but Survivor, obviously there’s someone voted out, and Tribal Council, there’s a winner. People are playing alliances and that sort of thing.

But here, there’s a whole ‘nother layer, which is letting the audience in to play. So you’re not only cutting it for the contestants and the narrative that they’re going on, but you’ve also got to think about the path and the journey that the audience is going to go on, too.

You could do one cut, the mole could seem too obvious. You do another cut, there’s no way of ever picking it. How do you even thread that needle is a really interesting challenge as well.

Mole winner Will Richardson in one of his many confessional interviews, some of which used scripted lines in ADR—dialogue recorded later and added in post production
Mole winner Will Richardson in one of his many confessional interviews, some of which used scripted lines in ADR—dialogue recorded later and added in post production (Image via Netflix)

One thing that the players have also revealed on social media is that the some challenges were cut out. Talk to me about that. Is it hard to lose those, like, we have this spectacular challenge. Was it for time? Or it didn’t change the story, so it didn’t matter?

That goes back to what we what I talked about with the dinner parties. You shoot this thing for weeks and weeks, and you have ideas about how some things are gonna turn out. Some turn out brilliantly, much better than you’d ever have expected, and you’re like, wow, we thought this was gonna be five minutes of air time, it’s actually going to be 20.

But equally, there’s some which you think in your head and on paper or on tests are going to work really well, and they are not as successful as others. It’s just creative decisions in the edit to just get to a palatable runtime.

I’d love the opportunity, and maybe in the future, for Netflix to give us a director’s cut—long sweeping, two-hour episodes. For now, that target of anywhere from 40 to 50 minutes is generally where those shows tend to run, and you have to, unfortunately, lose some things you love.

Whenever you make those choices, [you need to] still make it a cohesive narrative for the audience. Obviously, you can’t cut things out that just all of a sudden aren’t going to make sense.

Did any of those challenges affect the pot, or was it ones where they just didn’t earn any money, and you could easily just wipe them out?

We made sure that, when it came to the pot, everything mapped out very square.

Netflix's The Mole's final three celebrate after their final mission
Netflix’s The Mole’s final three celebrate after their final mission.

What do you know now, having produced a season of The Mole, that you couldn’t have known before? Maybe the challenge of the edit was one of those. Is there anything else?

You’ve touched on a few things that we’d love to look at in season two: a little bit more of that dinner party, that interpersonal gameplay, would be great. It’s just making sure that we weigh it evenly with the tests and challenges.

Looking at the prize amounts and how that works is something we probably couldn’t predict. Even in season two, there’s going to be such a level of not knowing how people are going to approach the games.

Now we obviously know how to edit the show, and tell what I think is a really, really entertaining narrative, and I think that’s only going to get better.

I can tell you this: Eureka, and everyone working on this show, love it. They’re passionate. I hope that you can see on those frames the blood, sweat, and tears of the amazing team. Not only did they create an incredible show, but they did it in the middle of COVID lockdowns, when producing shows was extremely challenging.

There are things I love about the show, things we can improve on for season two, but I couldn’t be prouder—not only of the crew that put it together, but the cast as well. A lot of these people were not necessarily OG super fans, but the way they threw themselves into the game.

I hope that is going to make that OG Mole audience proud that the brand is heading back in the right direction.

I certainly feel that way. It may not have made me perfectly happy, but what does, to be honest! (laughs)

(laughs) Andy, keep campaigning, and maybe by season five, we will make you happy. I can’t promise season two we’re going to nail it, either.

But that’s what’s great about television: it’s made by people, it’s played by people, and as I said, I’m super-proud of this incredible team.

So we keep talking about season two, and I don’t know if you’re breaking some news here. Is that just your producer mind thinking about it? Or is it that…

Yeah, it’s my producer mind. Netflix, as you know, operate on a longer time scale than the broadcast networks, who are more responding to overnight [ratings]—but even now, I think that’s changing.

So, still too early to say. I know they’re super-proud of the series, and time will tell about a season two.

Is there any anything I didn’t ask about—anything that you wanted to make sure people know about the production, or anything that maybe I wrote that you were like, Nope, you’re totally wrong here.

Everyone’s entitled to their opinions, and I’ve never challenged people for having a view, good or bad— certainly not good!

All I can say is, and I think Netflix feels the same way, it’s really an honor and privilege—I know it sounds hyperbolic—but it is an honor and a privilege to be able to have the keys to such an incredible format like this.

I love seeing the reactions of the OG Mole fans, but I love just as much saying these people who have never, ever heard of it, never ever seen a frame of any version, just embracing it. I’m proud that we achieved that fine balance of keeping some of the OGs happy but also inviting a whole new fan base.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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Happy discussing!

tim

Thursday 3rd of November 2022

Great interview! You were very kind and still managed to bring up the things that didn't work in this re-boot (and unfortunately those are a lot).

The episodes are super short (too short for this kind of show I believe) and *still* everything feels dragged out endlessly, repeated and narrated to death. There's no reason to have this many confessionals, especially when they don't add anything new. We should have gotten to see more missions and more player interaction instead, maybe that would have made The Mole feel less soulless.

A major problem is that whoever cut this probably thinks viewers are brain damaged idiots. I guess that's what their target audience is, but come on, there's even flashbacks of stuff we literally *just saw happening* in the episode!

The cast is potentially great but aside of contrived testimonials we don't get to see enough of them to really get a good impression. There's only a copule maybe that I cared about and that's never a good sign for a reality show. Also it seems everybody having the same age isn't doing the show any favours.

I'm glad this season happened - just like the half assed "reunion" and the meager price pot - it was a largely underwhelming affair. If this is supposed to be the "mole for a new generation" I'm not sure anyone needed it. I can believe there was a steep learning curve for production though, so I'll give them an A for effort. Still hoping producers (and Netflix!!) are learning from it for the inevitable season 2.

Molelinkluck

Wednesday 2nd of November 2022

My issue, from reading this, is that they ADMITTEDLY just weren't willing to put in the really hard work to do the things that made/make this show/game amazing. No music, lazy casting, slipshod editing, deleted missions, almost meaningless dollar values for each mission and a tiny final prize pot, no clues for the audience, little interaction from the host, etc., etc. But what really irks me, unless I am reading it wrong, they also, purposefully tried to make it as little like the U.S. version as possible, which annoys me because those seasons were REALLY quite entertaining. Again, I want "Classic Mole" back, not "Mole Lite."

Robert Karp

Tuesday 1st of November 2022

Good job reporting. I'm not sure the producer is very interested in any changes that would make this show better. He seems very satisfied with what was put out. (I'm not expecting him to dump on his own show, but come on a little more self-analysis of issues would help me think they know what they are doing) Interesting that he doesn't see the need to improve music, staging, execution/elimination to make the show a bit more dramatic.

He really things there was no problem with the confessionals? Ugh. There should be none, they do not make it more interesting for the audience and take away from game play that could have been shone.

I also think a disclaimer should appear that says "some challenges that did not affect the outcome of the game were not shown". (I actually think every mission should be shown) Of course they matter, decisions are being made based on what went on during every mission. For all we know something happened we did not see that locked Joi into Will as the mole.

Why show more of the dinners with Alex? As I remember in the Anderson Cooper seasons, there was actually some game play in some of the meals. I really don't care about the interactions among the cast unless is provides some context to the game.

Melissa

Monday 31st of October 2022

I understand you can't do two hour episodes, but why not one full hour?

Great interview Andy; thanks for sharing!

Robert Karp

Tuesday 1st of November 2022

@Andy Dehnart, Yes, I don't get this idea of 42 minutes or even an hour. This seems to be a throw back to network television. Is it because they can syndicate this on to some sort of cable or broadcast platform that does work with 1 hour episodes?

Andy Dehnart

Tuesday 1st of November 2022

Thanks, Melissa! That's a good question, and I wish I'd followed up on that. My educated guess would be that it has something to do with budget, such as Netflix allotting a certain amount per minute, or data that suggests that's the ideal time for Netflix competitions. With Netflix dramas being so overstuffed, I'd love for them to give some of that time to reality TV—when it needs it!

John

Monday 31st of October 2022

I'll wade into the age debate here with an observation: if the age-market is roughly 18-35, then the people who watched Anderson Cooper's Mole, which debuted in 2001, are roughly 39-56 right now, and I would think securing those fans would be a high priority for this re-boot because without them, Eureka has to create an audience out of nothing. And at least to me--considerably older, I admit--the lack of age diversity too often made the challenges look like orientation games at a college for pretty people, and no one wants to see that. If the goal is to create the chemistry of summer camp, then I suppose it worked, but that kind of chemistry is never very interesting because the main drama amounts to "but I thought you were my friend" (a version of what Joi said when she learned the identity of the mole).

The interview is great, Andy, and I noticed that Culvenor danced around your question about whether Alex was eager to be more involved. I don't know how to interpret that, but I found it his least forthright response in an otherwise very open and honest conversation.

I'll peak into a second season if there is one, but I'll be looking for more emphasis on the challenges and discovering the identity of the mole than on all the acts of sabbotage by the non-mole players meant to mislead the others into mis-identification of the mole. That made elements of the season tedious and as a whole, anticlimactic for me.

I completely agree that episodes ending on a challenge cliffhanger or something similar made the series feel less coherent and as if the voting and elimination were far less significant than it could have been. Survivor has a winning episode-end formula with tribal council discussion, vote, and eliminiation, followed by a next-episode teaser. I'd stick to that.

Rapahel

Monday 31st of October 2022

@John, this show of amnay reality shows lately, has the most scripted vibe to it... essentially a joe schmo feel where everyone was in on the facade, and it was the player of the week that did a sabotage to redirect mole suspicion, so someone gets eliminated. what role did the mole actually have....