When "The Mole" first debuted, the reality series wasn't as revered as it is now. From accusations that it ripped off "Survivor" to critics' complaints that the game was too complicated or intellectual, the mystery-based competition didn't seem to have much of a chance of lasting more than one season. That it is now being resurrected eight years later, with a new season premiering June 2, is perhaps its greatest surprise of all.
During its initial run in early 2001, "The Mole" eventually won over viewers and some critics, thanks to smart game play, stunning locations, and witty host Anderson Cooper, now of CNN. Its premise is simple, despite what some critics argued at the time: Contestants work to complete challenges and earn money if those are successfully completed. One contestant, however, works for the producers, attempting to sabotage the players' efforts.
The other players have to figure out who the mole is, although that can be difficult. Some contestants refuse to participate in challenges for legitimate reasons (say, a fear of heights) and others try to stop others from guessing the mole's identity by pretending to be the mole themselves.
As a result, the game is more analytical than anything else, and viewers play along, because the identity of the mole isn't known to anyone. In addition, eliminations — which "The Mole" over-dramatically refers to as "executions" — are not left to other contestants or viewers. Instead, each contestant is tested about the identity of the mole at the end of the episode, and the person with the lowest score goes home.
And unlike "Survivor," "The Mole" was a game that looked appealing to actually participate in: Contestants traveled to European countries, testing themselves while visiting grand locations, where they stayed in nice hotels and ate meals with their host.
The people also helped make the show watchable. The first two casts had a diverse mix of fun, pleasant contestants, and although there was conflict and irritability, many developed genuine friendships even while trying to figure out who among them was the mole. Anderson Cooper's ironic detachment ensured that the game never took itself too seriously, so the whole thing came off as an intellectual lark, a fun but engaging diversion.
All of this explains why the return of "The Mole" is being greeted with enthusiasm. In a television environment where ripping off other formats is the norm, "The Mole" offers something with familiar elements that's still fundamentally different.
Bad timing doomed first versionGrowing enthusiasm and ratings during the first season led to a renewal for a second season, which debuted in late September 2001, when many viewers weren't very interested in watching much more than news reports about that fall's terrorist attacks. ABC pulled the show after a few weeks, and returned it the following summer, where it aired on the same nights as a little show called "American Idol," which back then was drawing just around 10 million viewers an episode. "The Mole" did okay, but not enough to have its existing format renewed.
Host Anderson Cooper left for CNN, and ABC stuck with the show, but dumbed down the formula with two celebrity seasons. While replacement host Ahmad Rashad did a decent job, and "Celebrity Mole" was one of the more tolerable celebrity reality series, the two celebrity editions were poor imitations of the original, and didn't manage to capture the life of the original.
For this latest season, the show will again have a new host. This is perhaps its greatest challenge, because Cooper was so integral to the series' success. His wit and charm were a large part of the show's appeal, and he was a host like no other, eating dinner with the contestants and talking to them not like a host, but a bemused observer.
Replacing him is former Extra correspondent Jon Kelley, and if are any indication, he may be able to fill the Cooper role without trying to imitate the show's original host.
Still, that he's already being compared to Cooper is indicative of the series' greatest challenge: living up to the original.
When the show's return was announced, executive producer Scott Stone told Variety that producers "simplified" the show so "people at home can play along." That's troubling, because while it might be slightly more complicated than "Dancing with the Stars," the show was not impossible to follow. If teens can keep track of Lauren Conrad's social life on "The Hills," no one should have a problem with "The Mole."
The bigger problem is nostalgia, which carries significant danger. "American Gladiators" returned earlier this year to strong ratings, but its diminishing viewership seems to indicate that audiences were only really interested in reconnecting briefly with a show that provided them with fond memories earlier in life.
Also this spring, the Fox Reality Channel and MyNetworkTV resurrected cult favorite trash-fest "Paradise Hotel," and the results were a pale, pathetic imitation of the original, and failed to catch on or generate the conversation that the first did.
The original "Mole" has not disappeared. With the two original seasons repeating occasionally on Fox Reality, and season one on DVD, reliving its adventure and excitement is still possible.
As "Gladiators" and "Paradise" proved, sometimes it's better to leave memories alone. The return of "The Mole" will find new viewers, but it will probably have some who are ultimately more interested in figuring out whether it's living up to the original than in learning the identity of the mole.
If something seems wrong with "The Mole" on Monday night, the hidden saboteur may be ABC and producers who are changing the show, but it's probably mostly just viewer expectations.