Thursday, June 05, 2008

Return Of A Friend – The Mole Is Back

I believe that I am more than a little discriminating when it comes to reality shows. Survivor, Big Brother, Hell's Kitchen, The Apprentice are all fine with me, The Bachelor(ette), Nanny 911, Wife Swap, American Idol, and So You Think You Can Dance and just about all of the others can go pound salt. For me the Rolls Royce of reality shows has always been The Amazing Race. I regularly have to restrain myself from recapping every episode of the race in a long and complicated manner in this blog. And if The Amazing Race is the Rolls Royce of reality shows for me then the Bentley is The Mole. (To understand that metaphor you have to understand that for many years Bentley was owned by Rolls Royce as what amounted to their economy line – cheaper and not built to quite the exacting standards as Rolls Royce, but still better than what just about anyone else was building.)

The Amazing Race and The Mole share a similar history with the big difference being that one was at a network that wasn't prepared to stick by the show. The Amazing Race debuted on September 5, 2001 – in other words a week before the attacks on the World Trade Center – and took a major drop in the ratings. The Mole debuted in January 2001, and from what I can tell seems to have had good if not spectacular ratings – enough so that ABC ordered a second season of the show in its original format. That season debuted on September 28, 2001 and after three weeks in the "Friday Night Death Slot" ABC pulled the show and burned it off starting in June 2002 as a summer replacement. The show was then retooled as The Celebrity Mole with former football player and sports commentator Ahmad Rashad as host (replacing news reporter Anderson Cooper). The first version of this ran in January and February 2003, with a second season running in 2004. After that ABC abandoned the concept and even sold their rights to the program to GSN (the former Game Show Network). Meanwhile The Amazing Race chugged right along, being relegated to the summer for two series (once when it was originally scheduled to go up against American Idol and CBS decided that a revival of Star Search would do better in the time slot) before returning to the regular line up. And now, The Mole is back. Admittedly it's back as a summer show but as the man said, that better than nothing.

The central point of The Mole is that amongst the twelve contestants there is one person who is working with the producers to reduce the amount of money that the other people can win. That person is The Mole. The players win money for a pool by successfully completing missions, either individually, in teams, or as a group. They can also lose money by being penalized for not obeying the instructions they've been given. The Mole has the task of preventing them from winning

The episode starts with new host Jon Kelley standing at the edge of a Chilean waterfall. The contestant are being driven to this site in vans. They've just met each other and are getting a sense of the other people in the group. This is going to be important because the very first question for the group is who they think The Mole is, based on just what they've found out on the van ride to the waterfall. They decide on stay at home mom Marcie. Kelley then tells them that this gives her control of the first mission of the game. This involves the players going over the waterfall on a raft. The players are attached with a harness to a safety line so that when the raft goes over the waterfall they won't go with it. Above the edge of the waterfall is a pole with a burlap bag attached, a different bag for each contestant, that they will have to grab and hold onto as they go over the edge. Five of those bags will have money, five will have paper. Marcie's task is to decide who will get which. Apparently who she picked to have a shot at the money was suspicious. Of the bags that were actually grabbed only two have money in them for a total of $20,000. Suspicious? Apparently, since some of the other contestants suggested that she only selected the shortest people to grab for the money, which means they were less likely to get it.

Once the waterfall challenge was over it was time to bed down for the night. There was a cabin for the contestants by as Kelley explained, there were only eight beds so three people would have to sleep outside that night. Marcie got to pick which three would sleep outside, including Craig (the fat guy) and Nicole the Doctor. Two of the three are fine with that, the third being Nicole. She doesn't want to sleep outside, so she decides to stay inside. She decides to pull off the old resident's trick of staying awake all night so that she isn't actually "sleeping" inside. It seems to work because in the morning Kelley doesn't announce any penalties, but it is still enough for the other people in the group to start to be irritated by her. That sense grows even more powerful in the morning when she complains about not having a blow dryer for her hair or any make-up. So it really doesn't come as a huge surprise when the group names her as the biggest whiner when asked by Kelley at the site of the next challenge. This means that she got to sit out while the other eleven split themselves into groups. Six people search the beach for objects that could have been used by Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe. I seems that Selkirk was a whiner (hence the need for a whiner from the group) who so exasperated the captain of the ship he was sailing in that Selkirk was castaway on a section of beach with only five items. Three people had to evaluate what the searchers found to determine which items were ones that Selkirk could have had with them. They had three tries to get the right combination of items. Meanwhile two people were trying to keep their time from running out; there was a large inverted pyramid full of sand and the two people who were trying to keep the time from running out had to keep filling the pyramid with sand because the game ended when the pyramid was empty. The trick was that most of the items on the beach were things that weren't invented in 1700 when Selkirk was marooned – things like Victrolas, and hair dryers, but also jeans which the players included on the grounds that they were pants and he must have had pants. After the final evaluation they were able to get three items right for total winnings of $15,000, and a total pot size of $25,000. Oh and Nicole – Dr. Whiner as she designated herself – had to spend the night on the beach.

After the eleven players who left the beach finished a fine dinner in a private dining room (no one on this show has ever starved or had to rely on airline food) it is time for the first execution. On The Mole players are eliminated based on how well they do on a quiz concerning the identity of The Mole. There are ten questions on the quiz, which is available at the show's website. The person with the fewest correct answers is eliminated. There is also one person who is exempt from the quiz. That would be Nicole who got the exemption in return for staying on the beach. Eventually Marcie, who the group initially pegged as The Mole was executed as a result of the quiz.

The Mole is a good show on a network that isn't treating it very well. I'll get to that point in the next paragraph but let's get on to what makes it a good show. The locale is gorgeous. The cast is an excellent blend of young and old, professional and working class, and they don't all look like models. The structure of the game is such that there are both coalitions (The Mole version of an alliance) real and fake. There's suspicion bordering on paranoia, as well as the whole question of solving the mystery of the identity of The Mole that is central to the game. Early on it's guesswork, but as the group diminishes and the clues mount it becomes detective work – basic and amateur detective work, but still representing more skill than a lot of shows. As for the host, Jon Kelley is no Anderson Cooper (which is bad) but he's also no Ahmad Rashad (who often seemed to approach the whole thing as a joke) and in my book that's a good thing.

As I mentioned, ABC isn't treating this show very well. The debut episode aired on Monday night in the third hour of prime time following a two hour episode of The Bachelorette, opposite a rerun of CBS's CSI: Miami and a surprisingly good fifth game of the Stanley Cup playoffs that went into triple overtime. Finishing third in the time slot and with a weak 1.9 rating in the 18-49 demographic, it also lost a considerable portion of The Bachelorette's audience which itself was in third place in both total audience and the 18-49 year old demographic. The immediate question for me is whether this is the best time slot for this show. It seems eminently "family friendly" – more so in my opinion than The Bachelorette, so why not put it in the first hour of prime time which, after all is where Survivor, The Amazing Race and even Big Brother thrive. I suspect that ABC's logic may have been that since The Bachelorette had good – or at least adequate – ratings the previous two weeks it would be a good lead-in for the show. What they seemed to forget is that those episodes of The Bachelorette had Dancing With The Stars as their lead-in. I don't think that The Bachelorette on its own has the ratings power to help a show like this, so why not try The Mole at an earlier hour?

I have been a fan of The Mole since it began as an intelligent reality competition show that foregoes a lot of the hardship that other such shows subject their participants to. I just wish that more people would watch an make it the success it deserves to be.

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