A few weeks ago when the New York Times published an anonymous op-ed from someone in the White House everyone was wondering who did it. It seemed as if the Trump administration’s reality horror show had an enemy within, a saboteur if you will.
While that news had the world wondering who the mole was in Washington, it got me thinking about the best show of all time, The Mole.
The Mole, which aired on ABC in the early 2000s, was the perfect reality show and in an age where the current White House has countless ties to reality TV, from Omarosa’s tell all book, to Kim Kardashian meeting to discuss prison reform, to Dennis Rodman’s friendship with both Kim Jung Un and Trump himself, watching it today it's more prescient than ever. The show, which was initially hosted by Anderson Cooper, combined the high stakes drama of strangers competing against one another for up to one million dollars with lavish locations and intensely cerebral gameplay.
The game works like this: ten players work together to complete tasks, each task successfully completed adds money to a group pot and whoever wins at the end takes home whatever money was earned. However, one player, the mole, is working to sabotage the success of the team. At the end of each episode the players take a quiz about the identity of the mole and whoever does the worst is eliminated. Here’s an example of a typical Mole challenge: In episode two, the players are staying at a fancy hotel in Monte Carlo when one of the contestants, Steven, is kidnapped in the middle of the night. The next morning when the other players gather for breakfast they realize he’s missing. These players split into three teams, given clues to his location, and told that if they can find him within two hours they will earn $50,000 for the group’s pot. Steven meanwhile is literally shackled in a tower with an iron mask over his face. But here’s the thing: Steven wasn’t just in the neighbourhood, he was in a tower in Cannes, France. Production literally took him to another country in the middle of the night and expected the other players to figure it out.
So that’s the challenge, but it’s not really the gameplay.
In the words of one the show’s sharpest players “we’re a team, but we’re not a team.” The ultimate point after all is to figure out who the mole is while also misleading other contestants.
Pretend you were participating in this find-Steven-in-the-tower challenge. Sure if everyone works together $50,000 could get added to the group’s winnings, but if you thought there’s no way to figure this out in time, maybe you’d intentionally try to fail the challenge in order to make the other players suspicious of you. If they believe you’re the mole (and you’re not) they’ll be more likely to fail the quiz and be eliminated.
That’s the beauty of the show. Everything everyone says and does could be genuine, a bluff, a double bluff, a triple bluff, who knows. It’s 2018 levels of paranoia.
Some of the best moments in the show come from its host of its first two seasons, Anderson Cooper, who forgoed the traditional reality show host role in favour of being an active participant. Regularly he chimes in to tempt players with advantages, he’d openly question their gameplay in front of other contestants, and sometimes he’d just taunt them for reasons that remain unclear to me.
In one episode producers called in every player for some one-on-ones to get their thoughts on what’s happening in the game (you know those classic reality TV confessionals), and in a secret test they left a camera running while the producers left the room leaving a production notebook wide open to see if any players would be tempted to look at it. Only one contestant, Kathryn, did.
While drinking expensive wines over dinner that evening one player mentions that their interview was interrupted, and in turn all the players realize their interviews were interrupted and they were all left alone with the producer’s notebook. Cooper noticing Kathryn is rather quiet butts in to ask if anything unusual happened during her interview. She says no. Cooper presses her on it until she caves in front of the other players that she snooped through the notebook.
Now, did she do that because she was looking for an advantage? Or because she was the mole and was trying to reduce suspicion on herself by appearing like she needed an advantage? Who’s to say?
Unlike every other reality game show where the audience is let in on the what the players are thinking, The Mole doesn’t reveal the identity of the mole to viewers, forcing them to play along week to week. While rewatching this I couldn’t help but imagine how great this could have been had the internet been the force it is today.
Looking back, part of the show’s charm is that it first launched in the heydey of reality TV just before the stereotypical tropes were formed. The first season aired in January 2001 and was a hit, with the second season airing in September of that year. However, in the wake of 9/11 the show struggled to hold an audience. Maybe a show about deception that encouraged its players to become deeply paranoid about the people around them wasn’t well suited to a nation in mourning. The show went on hiatus, and when it returned it aired opposite American Idol and never enjoyed the success of its first season.
Anderson Cooper soon left the show for CNN, but ABC wasn’t quite done with The Mole yet. The next two seasons of the show were celebrity versions, and there isn’t much to say here except that they generally sucked. But, as I was watching every episode of this show something happened that in retrospect is very important. Spoilers ahead. The Mole: Yucatan was an unmitigated disaster. Eight C-listers like Steve Baldwin, best known for his role as Barney Rubble in The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, model Angie Everhart, and basketball legend turned North Korean diplomat Dennis Rodman competed against one another in the show’s fourth installment.
Knowing Rodman’s connection to the Trump administration, and knowing that The Mole is the most cerebral show of all time, I was keen to watch his gameplay. Throughout the season I was disappointed that he seemed to have no idea what was going on. He never took notes, he often seemed confused by the rules, and he did disastrously in most challenges. But that didn’t matter because he made it to the end and answered 17/20 questions correctly in the final quiz to claim the win. If anything it seemed that his laid back attitude to the game made other players believe he was the mole, causing them to drop like flies as he coasted to the end with his photographic memory.
I’m convinced Rodman’s success here had massive implications for the world. After his win he went on to star in The Celebrity Apprentice and All Star Celebrity Apprentice. And a fun fact, if you can call it that, is that Rodman was fired from the all star version for spelling Melania Trump’s name wrong. At any rate, Trump and Rodman stayed in each other’s lives over the years, for mutual self promotion, and to cut to the chase, we now live in a world where Rodman’s diplomatic chops have made him an important part of Trump’s North Korea policy.
And it all started with The Mole.
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