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One Good Thing: The Mole is a relic of early reality TV that still holds up

Now streaming on Netflix, the spy-themed competition show lets viewers play along with the contestants.

A young Anderson Cooper sits at a computer
Young Anderson Cooper hosts The Mole, with a moody wardrobe to match the show’s impeccable vibes.
ABC/Eagle Rock Entertainment

The Mole is a gem of reality TV past, with an essence that other series have never quite been able to recapture. Airing for four consecutive seasons on ABC from 2001 to 2004 (with a fifth and final season in 2008), the mystery competition show worked to create a spirit of spy-like thrill and adventure. Even better, it’s one of the few reality shows that let the viewer feel like they’re playing along with it. It’s now streaming on Netflix, ready for an entirely new audience to discover it.

Each episode begins with an explanation of the game’s rules. As host, a young Anderson Cooper (decked out in moody, all-black “espionage” attire) explains that players will compete in a series of challenges to add money to a growing pot of up to $1 million. But, he notes, there’s a traitor among them who must be found out: One of the players has been selected as the titular “Mole” and must work as “a double agent,” deceiving the other players, disrupting their efforts, and moving in secret. Thus, every contestant is a suspect, and each week the contestants must take a quiz with questions about the identity of the Mole. The player who performs worst on the quiz is eliminated. At the game’s end, one player will be named the show’s winner — and one will be revealed as the Mole. It’s very dramatic and a bit complex, but it’s precisely this committed mood and spirit that makes the show fun to watch.

Adapted from the still-running Belgian series De Mol, each season of The Mole sends American contestants globe-trotting as they compete. In its first season, 10 contestants travel through France, Monaco, and Spain. (Future seasons go on to Italy and Switzerland, Hawaii, the Yucatan peninsula, and Chile and Argentina.) Each episode features daily challenges in a formula that would become familiar on other shows such as The Amazing Race or Survivor. Each of The Mole’s “tests’’ varies in scale, whether it’s going skydiving, figuring out how to reach a new destination, or doing their teammates’ laundry in a town where they don’t know the language. Often, there are variations on familiar games and activities like laser tag, brain teasers, and capture the flag, where opportunities for teamwork and betrayal abound. Watching now, there’s a peculiarity to the challenges — which are pre-smartphone, pre-fancy GPS, and often lo-fi and low-tech — but it makes the moments when they still manage to be thrilling all the more exciting. (A standout ambitious challenge in a late episode of season 1 might have invented escape rooms?!)

Each episode’s final test is its most important. The quiz’s 20-plus multiple-choice questions range from “Is the Mole male or female?” to “What did the Mole have for breakfast?” Players answer these questions on a timed computer quiz, based off their own weekly suspicions. The players’ actual quiz scores are never revealed to them, making it near impossible to know how on or off track they might be. Because a player’s fate is based on how well they do on the quiz in relation to others, it’s in their better interest that another contestant performs worse. This leads to players trying to confuse their teammates, sometimes even drawing attention to themselves or implicating someone else. As Cooper narrates, “How do you work together when you can’t trust anyone?”

It’s all very intense framing for what is truly a fun mystery game. But The Mole commits to the vibe on all fronts, from the soundtrack to the players’ buy-in to its language: Each episode culminates in what the show calls an “execution,” which is just a classic competition-show elimination ceremony. This suspenseful event sees Cooper type in the names of the remaining players into a computer, one by one. If they’ve performed well enough to be spared, the screen turns a bright green. If they did the worst on the quiz (and are thus the least knowledgeable about the Mole’s identity) they’re “executed”: The screen turns a vivid red, the music plunges, and they’re sent packing.

The Mole arrived at an interesting time in reality TV history: at the onset of American reality staples that still run today. Its first season aired only about five months after Survivor’s first season ended, and it predated The Amazing Race by eight months. There’s an apparent normalness to its cast and contestants that feels almost strange by today’s standards. There are no indications of desired social media fame (a la Bachelor in Paradise), and it feels less about having a big personality and more about the actual game. Jim, the light-grunge, out-as-gay “helicopter pilot” is a standout of the first season, often showcasing admiration for the game in all its fun and difficulty. (In what seems ahead of its time, The Mole’s first season featured not one but two openly gay contestants.) And the final three have a dynamic chemistry that feels singular and too good to spoil. It all makes for a stakes-filled final stretch that’s one of the most satisfying viewing experiences I’ve ever had.

If there is any flaw to the series, it’s in what we don’t see. To maintain the suspense of the Mole’s identity, the viewer can’t be privy to all contestant strategizing and theorizing. We learn some of these details by a season’s end and in each finale, but you get the feeling there’s so much we’re not shown due to time and editorial constraints. There’s a rumored potential new iteration in the works under a different title, though it’s difficult to imagine a reboot could maintain the same magic as the original in a new technological and social media age.

What remains the smartest part of the show’s mechanics is how the identity of the Mole is withheld from viewers, too. It allows the audience to play along and guess who the Mole might be from episode to episode. In middle school, my friends and I would share weekly theories of the Mole’s identity, writing the names of suspects on the chalkboard between classes, or even playing our own versions in backyards before the sun went down — a friend’s older brother played host, we neighborhood kids using pencil and paper to take the quizzes.

The Mole often felt like a secret relic only my friends and I knew. I’ve remembered it fondly over the years but haven’t found many others who watched it. Now that it’s streaming, a wider audience can escape into its thrilling adventure at any time. When it dropped on Netflix, I sat down to rewatch its second season for the first time since it aired. I swore I remembered who the Mole was and felt upset by how obvious it seemed now. I worried: Had the show lost its luster in retrospect? But when the Mole was revealed in the season two finale, I was shocked to find out that I’d misremembered. My suspicions and mountains of evidence against this player were misplaced. I had been duped once more. It made me feel like a kid again, completely full of wonder and awe.

The first two seasons of The Mole are streaming on Netflix. Seasons one and three are available on DVD. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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