Back when reality shows were only beginning to take over television ... back before Anderson Cooper reported live from the New Orleans Superdome and harangued Bush administration officials on live television ... there was The Mole. And in case you needed another sign of the apocalypse, the recent writers' strike apparently pushed ABC back into The Mole business after more than a four-year hiatus.
I only watched the first season, but I am not ashamed to say that I enjoyed the heck out of it. Unlike the Survivor-esque endurance tests that dominated early American reality TV, it was more about puzzles and mysteries -- and the contestants lived high on the hog. The mood turned against The Mole when 9/11 happened two weeks before the season 2 premiere, and the network, in panic mode, went straight to the time-honored gameshow version of the shark jump: Celebrity Mole.
Now we've traded Cooper, who reported from revolutions in Burma and genocides in Rwanda before cleansing his palate with The Mole, for Jon Kelly, former Chicago sports anchor and six-year veteran correspondent on Extra. (Actually, he acquits himself well, with an appropriate blend of gravitas and playfulness.) The idea of the game is to earn money that will eventually be the property of the winner while trying to figure out which contestant is actually a plant who is sabotaging the cash-accumulating efforts. Is there a double-blind structure, where Jon doesn't know who is the mole lest he unconsciously give it away to some Clever Hans of a contestant?)
The opening "mission" is some serious craziness -- jumping for burlap sacks full of money (or, alternately, "worthless paper," as Jon kept intoning ominously) over a waterfall. But at least the bags had a huge green dollar sign printed on them. If Scrooge McDuck had been in the challenge, we would have uncovered the mole in the first fifteen minutes. I enjoyed the eleven shots of the rafts busting apart into kindling and old tires. Threats to life and limb, yeah, I get it.
The second mission split the group into three teams. One hauled buckets of sand up onto a platform to fill a huge hourglass; one ran (or loped, or sauntered, or protested that they were about to suffer cardiac infarctions) around the beach trying to find items Alexander Selkirk might have had when he was marooned; and the other acted as appraisers to decide which scavenged items were authentic to the Selkirk period. On The Mole there are two ways these missions can go: (A) People root for each other and feel good about working hard, or (B) Everybody ends up mad as hell at everyone else for slacking, being idiotic, and engaging in suspicious moleishness. The Selkirk beach was type B.
We've had some rule simplifications, which is good because I can't remember the rules from seven years ago. According to Jon, one rule is that you have to sleep where you're assigned, but when Marcie picks her to camp out, Nicole initiates Operation Shutdown ("It's called circumvention") and plans to stay indoors but awake all night. For her pains she becomes the nominee for the biggest whiner -- "the person you love to hate, basically," as Paul explains it. (I'm not seeing the love part.) Paul has cunning plans and crazy capers aplenty. He's cultivating Marcie, but engaging in an ostentatious friendship with Alex in order to throw everybody off the scent. (What scent?) His leading suspect going into the quiz is Craig, "the person you love to love." I hope we'll be getting a peek into his journal later on, to see what we feelings we love to ascribe to the nine other players.
As always, the episode ends with all players taking a quiz. If they do well at identifying the characteristics and identity of the Mole, they're safe; if they do poorly, they're gone. Although the show drags out the drama with a Vanna-esque mime act in which Jon presses a screen several times to reveal each player's fate, it's part of what makes this show good. I love competitions that are in some fashion or another about performance. And this show is a series of performance challenges, in groups and individually, culminating in an exam! As someone who's always found validation in the Foucauldian world of academia, I am very well pleased.
Verdict: The show got right to the action, Craig is adorable, Paul is an awful person, and some contestants thought that vacuum cleaners were around in the eighteenth century. Great start to the relaunch!
- When they went to falls and Jon said that they're going right to the edge, I was hoping they were here. Wouldn't that be cool?
- The premature suspicion is just mind-boggling. Five minutes in: "I think Marcie definitely could be the Mole." Look forward to that particular confession (mutatis mutandis) twenty times an episode for the rest of the season.
- Victoria, after making a pitiful grab for the bag while sitting on her butt: "Sorry, guys." Mark: "Whatever, mole."
- Paul picks out early mole suspect Marcie to have his "coalition" with. I don't remember -- do they call alliances "coalitions" on this show? Like they call the elimination an "execution"? And the special Mole journal ... a "journal"?
- Paul, on we've-known-her-for-48-hours Marcie's departure: "This is ... this is horrible." According to the teaser for next week, Paul's way too much of a jerk to be the mole, so maybe we won't have to put up with his lame-ass mindfuck strategizing too much longer. On the other hand, would I rather watch Mark cry about his family or Paul mock unhealthily-thin Bobby? Tough call.
- "See that giant hourglass over there? That's a special hourglass." Ahhhh ... welcome back, nutty reality-show version of reality!