Mention “The Mole” to virtually anyone who works in reality TV, and their eyes light up. For a show that hasn’t been seen on U.S. television since 2008 — and only aired five editions in total — “The Mole” has nonetheless achieved a near-mythical status in the annals of unscripted TV history.
““I grew up watching them all on television, and it was one of my all-time favorite reality shows,” says Eureka Prods. CEO Chris Culvenor. “It’s probably one of the most beloved formats that is out there, not just in this country, but worldwide. It combines a sense of adventure, with a sort of ‘Ocean’s 11’/’Mission Impossible’-style caper. People love a mystery. I think that is what was the appeal of the original.”
“The Mole” centers on 12 contestants who must solve challenges in order to add money to a pot — which one of them will win in the end. But one of them is actually a mole, secretly tasked with trying to sabotage their wins. Players must try to guess who the “Mole” is — while throwing others off the scent by tricking them into thinking they might be the culprit.
With true crime continuing to grow in popularity, Culvenor says he thought the time was right to reintroduce “The Mole” (a format that has continued in popularity in some European territories, including Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden) to the U.S., where it aired in 2001 on ABC, followed by celebrity editions in 2003 and 2004. The show was briefly revived (again on ABC) in 2008, but hasn’t been seen here since.
Eureka approached Belgium-based Primitives about the rights. “The show began in Belgium, and it’s still a huge hit there, as it is in many other countries,” Culvenor says. “The rights were available for the US and for others. And we became sort of obsessed by the idea of rebooting it and re-launching it for a new generation. So we made our pitch for how we envisaged relaunching the brand, we met with the creators of the show, and they really saw eye to eye about where we wanted to take it.”
Culvenor casually mentioned the idea while meeting with Netflix execs — and were immediately on board.
“At Netflix, we’re much more focused on new hits and building out new IP,” says unscripted series VP Nat Grouille. “But when a great idea comes along, that sort of lingers with you. The key question is why now? You really need to know that it’s going to connect with an audience in 2022. And for me, ‘The Mole’ has lots of interesting ways that it hooks into an audience. It’s a game of trust, you’re not quite sure who’s telling the truth and who’s not. And I think we live in that world now, where truth is harder to come by. So I think it’s zeitgeisty in that sense that at a high level.”
Casting is key — especially since the players are required to be clever and savvy in their gameplay, including, obviously, whomever is hired to play the “Mole.”
“Whether they’re a nurse, a fireman, someone who works in IT, they all had this sense of wanting to go into this thrill ride and this adventure,” Culvenor says. “And then, when it comes to deciding who that Mole was going to be, could they pull it off? Could they not crack under immense pressure? I don’t know if I could do that. Certainly, that’s a large weight on your shoulders to be able to kind of keep that up but we’re confident that the Mole did an incredible job.”
Because the show has been off the air for nearly 15 years here, Culvenor says casting also was an interesting mix of people who had heard of the show, and those who haven’t. “Either there were the super fans who have been begging and yearning for ‘The Mole’ to come back for many, many years — and you only have to go on Reddit, social media, Twitter, and you’ll find just the fever that’s around this format. So there was a certain sort of cast member who fell into that category,” he says. “And then there were ones who, just through their age didn’t have the same awareness. Ultimately, it didn’t matter if they were a superfan of the game, what we were looking for is this willingness and desire for adventure, and people who were going to throw themselves into the process. That was a far more important bar to find than to necessarily be a fan of the format.”
“The Mole” was shot in Australia, where Eureka maintains an office (the company, which is also behind this week’s “The Real Love Boat” revival on CBS, is based both there and in Los Angeles). “We wanted to location that would offer us a big city in one episode, a jungle in the other, a tropical island in the next, snowfields in another,” says Culvenor, who adds that future seasons would likely take place in other parts of the globe.
And then there’s the host. Perhaps “The Mole” is most famous for Anderson Cooper, who hosted the show’s first two seasons. (Ahmad Rashad and Jon Kelley also took turns as host.) For the revival, Eureka was inspired by Cooper in choosing another TV journalist: MSNBC’s Alex Wagner.
“The only thing that was more exhaustive for the hunt for the Mole was the hunt for the Mole’s host,” Culvenor says. “We looked at everything from movie stars to people with that adventure background, but I think why we came to Alex and her journalistic background is because journalists are always on the hunt, to get to the bottom of a story.”
Added Grouille: “She has it all. She’s got poise. She’s got reality instincts. She’s smart and clever. We went through host list after host list and decided that at the end of the day, we need a news person because we need someone who’s comfortable in the field. We need someone whose instincts are journalistic and really trying to spot the Mole at the same time as everyone else. And you need to feel that kind of that play along.”
Culvenor says he didn’t approach Cooper to return, given the desire to reimagine this version of “The Mole” with a fresh eye. He says it’s also too soon to tell whether Wagner, who’s busy with her MSNBC series, would be available for a second season.
“We haven’t got it got to that discussion at this stage, but what a great problem to have to be talking about a second season,” he says. “We know that she’s extremely passionate about the show and had a fantastic time on it. So, I think those discussions will be had over a glass of champagne if we get to our second season, which we’re all hoping for.” (Asked about future seasons, Grouille says, “We feel really, really good about this. Let’s see. As much as we know, and as experienced as we all are, and as brilliant as the production is, you never know what the audience is going to think.”)
Meanwhile, given the show’s big reveal, “The Mole” was tricky for Netflix to schedule. The streamer will release five episodes on Oct. 7, followed by batches of additional episodes the following two weeks. “Obviously you want to leave the audience something to play for at the end,” Grouille says. “It really does reflect the best way to tell the story. Each batch is in and of itself super satisfying.”