More than 14 years after it last aired a new season in the United States, The Mole is back, on Netflix, for a sixth U.S. season, though it is labeled season one, as if they want us to forget ABC’s three civilian seasons and two celebrity seasons.
Detaching the show from the nostalgia of ABC version is probably wise, though I find it to be impossible, considering my undying love for that original series, which is the only reality TV show I ever applied to.
Netflix’s Mole absolutely blows away all of the recent attempts to use The Mole’s format: Snake in the Grass, Rat in the Kitchen, The Hustler.
Is it a worthy successor to The Mole? Not yet, but it’s close.
It maintains the central format: 12 players, one of them working for the producers to sabotage the others’ attempts at earning prize money during intellectual and physical tests. A quiz about the mole’s identity determines who’s going home.
There are some smart changes and updates, both subtle (changing “execution” to “elimination,” “pot” to “prize pot”) and more obvious (turning offered exemptions into an actual object, a red credit card).
I particularly love the way eliminations are revealed: by mobile phone instead of flat-screen TV. While the players sit around a table, Alex Wagner enters their names into her tablet, one by one, causing each player’s phone to turn on. They tap their name on their phone, and the screen turns bright green or red, indicating whether they’re safe or out, often bathing their face in a green or red glow. It’s a terrific image.
While Netflix’s version is clean and competent and compelling in many ways, its first five episodes—half the season, which are all being dropped on us at once on Friday—make some baffling choices, and have yet to develop their own personality.
(This review does not contain spoilers, so there is no mention of who is eliminated nor the outcome of tests, but it does mention some of those tests and locations. I will publish a separate recap of the first five episodes that does contain spoilers.)
Netflix’s Mole has a great host but no identity
The Mole opens with new host Alex Wagner walking through the jungle, wearing a blue, belted romper, and it seems that maybe we’ve switched from James Bond to Indiana Jones, trading historic European cities for the rainforest of Australia, a globetrotting spy theme for treasure hunting. Terrific!
But after a night of camping, and then another night in a spectacular house in the rainforest, the players go on to Brisbane, where their next task is at a historic jail, and any sense of a theme vaporizes.
Later, they stay in a house on the coast that is introduced on screen like we’re watching The World’s Most Amazing Vacation Rentals or a real estate show on Bravo.
There’s no dramatic title sequence, there’s no dramatic lighting, there’s no…anything, really, to give this Mole its own personality. I’m glad Netflix did not attempt to clone the ABC version, even though I desperately miss David Michael Frank’s brilliant score, but I also just miss a tone, a feeling, something.
Netflix’s The Mole has a fun, catchy, and mysterious four-note musical cue—I’m not sure four notes count as a full theme song—that are played along with the show’s logo, and get repeated sometimes, but otherwise the music feels generic, and the production design doesn’t fill in the gaps.
The Mole hops around Australia, from the Outback to the Great Barrier Reef, but I don’t think identity is about its location. The Mole’s first season went to France, Monaco, and Spain, while season two was filmed in Switzerland and Italy, and despite those very different geographic and historical regions, it had its own personality that traveled with them.
Here, there’s no overarching sense of this as a big, epic adventure. It’s just kind of flat: competently constructed but almost generic, which may actually be what Netflix is going for.
Still, that lack of identity is surprising not just because of the franchise’s pedigree, but also considering how so many of the production company’ other American reality TV competitions have distinct personalities: Eureka Productions has given us the wackiness of Holy Moley, the vulnerability of The Real Magic Mike, the immersion of Dating Around. Even Frogger, which was a total misfire, had a clear visual identity.
The original oozed personality in part thanks to Anderson Cooper’s hosting, which makes it even more frustrating how much Netflix’s version has decided to sideline its host.
Alex Wagner is fantastic but barely a presence. Whether Anderson Cooper, Ahmad Rashad, and Jon Kelley were supervising challenges or just hanging out, they were a key part of the experience.
Alex is just parachuted in for certain moments, and does make great use of those, with a handful of hilarious asides or looks to camera. But she just disappears after introducing the tests. One test takes place near a beach, and I don’t know why she wasn’t there, sitting in a beach chair, sipping a cocktail.
Worse, a considerable amount of her dialogue is clearly ADR, inserted in post-production. So much of it is explanatory that it makes me think someone didn’t trust that the audience would know what was happening, so they had Alex record even more exposition. A few of the cast members also have clearly scripted/prompted lines that have been looped in, and thus are rather jarring.
The Mole’s players face fantastic tests
The Mole has been cast with a group of hot young people; eight of the 12 players are in their 20s, and the oldest is 40. In far too many ways, they seem like people who applied for Love is Blind and were shuffled over to this show instead.
Far too many of them are just grating, both in their behavior and in their game play—which may just be because of the editing’s decision to constantly cut away from the action to confessional interviews where they’re prompted to say annoying things.
There are certainly charming moments there, and some witty or sharp observations, but they’re blunted by the sheer exhaustion of having to listen to them. The first episode is particularly bad with this, or maybe it’s doing that to draw in a different kind of viewer.
There’s practically no time with the contestants outside of the tests, so there’s no chance to get to know them. When people are eliminated from the game, Alex walks them to a car, but there are no flashbacks, no reminiscing, no music pulling on the heart strings—which makes sense since they haven’t been developed as characters.
One reason for that: There are no group dinners! And no casual time with Alex! Why oh why?
The first time the cast gets some on-screen downtime, in episode three, the editing keeps cutting away so they can speculate about who might be the mole.
There’s a lot to speculate about, because so many of their attempts at drawing suspicion are laughably bad, and sometimes so over-the-top I wondered if that was the mole just being ludicrously obvious in order to defer suspicion from themselves.
They have an opportunity because of what works very well, and what takes up most of the time: the tests, which are, for the most part, outstanding, often creating surprising and delightful moments.
Netflix’s The Mole is at its best immersing the players and us in the tasks, which are by far the highlight of the episodes, and thankfully are the bulk of most episodes. They are what make this new version so watchable.
The early American seasons used tests from the Belgian version’s first two seasons, and some fans who’ve kept up with the Belgian version’s revival (since 2016, it has aired seven seasons) have recognized tests in the trailer as borrowed from that version.
Even if none of the tasks are original, the production deserves credit for implementing and editing them well.
It’s always clear what’s happening and where people are, which is aided by helpful on-screen graphics and clear camerawork. The players are usually broken up into smaller groups, creating opportunities for sabotage and distrust.
The moral dilemmas are by far the strongest tasks, presenting choices and complicating them in interesting ways, whether Alex is tempting players with an exemption or not. It’s in those that the show earns its interpersonal conflict and personality clashes—and produces some of its biggest and most shocking turns.
To quibble even more than I already have, there’s some insecurity present, such as in the second episode, when Alex Wagner basically gives away the solution to an escape room-like puzzle. Were they worried the tests would be too much of an intellectual challenge for the players?
But there’s even more insecurity in the structure of the episodes, which end on cliffhangers instead of after eliminations. I don’t mind that—though it’s odd how 40-something minute episodes are broken up—but I really mind clicking Next Episode and then having to rewatch 90 seconds of what I just watched.
The first cliffhanger is the first elimination, and oh, does that drain the tension out of that moment.
After watching half the season, despite its flaws, I’m absolutely in, and have theories about who the mole is and theories that have been excitingly squashed.
Having smart, multi-layered challenges back on American reality TV is such a pleasure, even if I do miss so much of what made the original special.
ABC’s The Mole was so great at ratcheting up the tension until that screen turned red, and Netflix’s The Mole misses that chance in order to tumble us into the next episode.
In many ways, Netflix’s The Mole misses opportunities that are right there, within reach. For now, it’s better-than-average without being truly excellent. That said, the first half of the season is a strong enough start that I think it can grow into a worthy successor to The Mole.
Netflix’s The Mole
A better-than-average attempt at reviving the beloved series, but one that desperately needs its own identity, a better cast, and more time with its terrific host. B
What works for me:
- The multi-layered tests
- The moral dilemmas
- Alex Wagner as host
What could be better:
- Giving the show its own identity
- Using Alex Wagner more
- Developing the cast more and using fewer interviews