In the world of The Mole, there are 12 players, but only one of them can really be trusted: themself.
The Mole, which originally ran as an ABC competition program for five seasons (including celebrity editions) between 2001 and 2008, based on the Belgian format, mixes traditional physical and mental missions with a quintessential whodunnit element. The players have to work together to complete tasks and puzzles, thereby increasing their bank account with additional prize winnings, but one among them is secretly working against them as the titular Mole, sabotaging wherever and whenever they can.
Returning for its sixth season overall but first on Netflix, The Mole in 2022 looks a little different than it did in the early aughts, though. This is in part due to new inspirations for the missions and better technology for eliminations (more on that in a minute), but also because of its cast. Even some of those who were not selected to be the actual Mole are partaking in sabotage as strategic gameplay. (Throwing suspicion on themselves means other people may guess that they are the Mole during the quizzes that determine who gets eliminated, and that increases that person's chances of going home while the player who only pretended to be the Mole can stay.) Risky? Maybe. An evolution of competition programs? Definitely.
"I think it's somewhat of this reality TV show honor to be the Mole," executive producer Chris Culvenor tells Metacritic.
Getting to hold that title was important to many of the people auditioning for the show, he explains, but so too was the adventure they would go on if they were ultimately selected as the Mole or just as a regular player.
Shot in Australia with Alex Wagner as the host, The Mole starts things off in a jungle with a downed (staged) plane, asking the players to find items high in the air, deep in a hole, and underwater. From there, things get even more complex, including forcing its players to work in teams of three to find their way out of locked prison cells, snag items from poles while speeding by them on a train, and keeping a runner's pace to arrive at a train station before that train.
"A lot of the inspiration for the challenges came from movies like Ocean's 11, Mission Impossible — these blockbuster caper movies, action movies, somewhat thriller movies. And so, each challenge has pop culture touchstones that we were inspired by. The train, The Orient Express; obviously, there's the prison break one, which is been seen in many, many movies [and] the jungle is a playground that's explored in lots of these movies," Culvenor explains. "There needed to be opportunities for sabotage, but also, opportunities for failure as well. [As to the] balance between mental and physical, we really wanted to test both. As you see the season go on, you'll see more and more of the mental and emotional challenges in there."
The show also throws in additional tests for players to choose between putting themselves or the larger prize money pot first. Exemptions for eliminations are up for grabs, if they're willing to wager away portions of winnings thus far (and Joi Schweitzer was, to the tune of $25,000) and/or compete in additional missions that pit players against each other, rather than working as a team.
As complicated as the show is — and as much money is on the line — Culvenor says, it is "a romp; it is designed to be fun."
Many reality TV producers like to claim that they don't get too involved with shaping narratives; they want to be "flies on the wall" capturing drama unfold, rather than stoking its fires. But The Mole has to pay more careful attention to its story structure than many other competition programs because it doesn't want to give away the identity of the real Mole too soon — nor does it want to ignore mistakes made by other players that could come across as suspicious behaviors to lead the audience to think they could be the Mole.
"This show is unlike any other reality competition out there because, in a sense, the audience is the 13th player. So, at any time as you're making the show, but also editing the show, you have to think about how the audience is interacting with the show as well," Culvenor admits. "The great thing about the show is, we're obviously engineering the mystery, in a sense, but then you put the layer of the contestants who are trying to figure out who the Mole is too [on it] so they create this incredible authentic level of subterfuge, suspicion, as well."
With that in mind, here, Culvenor joins Metacritic to answer burning questions after The Mole's premiere. But no, not the most burning question of them all — Who is the Mole? — because it wouldn't be a fun viewing experience if he just came out and told you!
Because Culvenor believes there is great value to obtaining the title of "the Mole," he didn't speak to whether that person was also offered additional compensation for arguably working a little harder than regular players in having to come up with ways to sabotage. But he did explain that producers were looking for certain extra, important traits in that person to feel confident they were up to the task.
"I think the biggest thing that we wanted to be assured of is, would that person be able to handle the pressure? Would they not crack under being suspected, if that did come up? Could they could they pull it off? And that's really the checklist that we went through," he shares.
As evidenced in the first five episodes of The Mole, some players are not just playing to increase the prize money and guess the real identity of the Mole, they are also trying to throw suspicion on themselves to throw others off the real scent.
Although the series only cast one person to be the real Mole, Culvenor says they did not impart any rules about how the others could play.
"People were allowed to play the game the way they wanted to play the game," he specifically confirms.
This is why, for example, Avori Henderson could try to throw part of a mission, why Osei White could decline to show the rest of the group what was in his team's bag during another mission, and why Sandy Ronquillo could lead the charge to keep Dom Gabriel from having a shot at returning to the game.
"What we tried to do was cast with a diversity of POVs and also a diversity of how people would play the game," Culvenor says. "Everyone we cast is extremely curious [and] has that adventurous streak, but we knew that just through their personalities, they would approach it in different ways. And as you've seen in the first five episodes, some people literally try to pretend to be the Mole, while others are just play it very straight. Others are suspicious about anything, and others, you feel like you get the idea that they're just along for the ride."
"You can go down such a mole hole, I guess, for lack of a better term, because then you start to suspect, 'Well, if someone's sabotaging too much and too obviously, well, they're definitely not the mole,'" he continues. But, "the game regulates itself in the way that if you try and game the game, it's gonna spit you out."
At the end of the plane mission in the premiere, the three teams had only made it back with two out of three cases. The next morning, only one of those cases remained. It was quickly revealed that it was Richardson who had, under the cover of night, removed and hidden the other case. However, it was also revealed that he did this because he happened to find a note saying that if he was able to successfully hide the case, the prize money would increase.
Culvenor confirms that the special task was a test for any player who found the note; it was not left for Richardson specifically. Still, by showcasing just how good he was at stealthy maneuvers and short-term deception (he searched for the missing case alongside everyone else without drawing suspicion), it could have made everyone around him wonder what else he could be getting away with.
"This show is going to be new to a lot of people in terms of this format, and by putting that quite early in the series, it allowed the audience to realize that nothing was what it seems and just like a great Agatha Christie novel, there's twists and turns. So, we were trying to get the language and the mystery up there very early on," Culvenor explains about this added bit of gameplay.
"Anything that anyone does can kind of springboard into suspicion. So, in a way, yes that person might be more of a suspect, but then in Episodes 2, 3, and 4 there's all these other threshold moments where people have those choices to make, and at the end of the day, there is only one Mole," he continues. "Some of those suspicious moments the Mole is absolutely involved in; other suspicious moments, they are not."
In the original version of the show, players would find out the future of their life in the game by the host putting their name into a computer and their green thumbprint turning red if they were eliminated on a large screen. In this version, each player is given a cell phone, and its screen turns green if they are safe and red if they are eliminated. They are tasked with holding the result up for all to see, though the host (Wagner) still controls the order of reading the results.
"We liked the idea of using the device for the elimination environment after the quiz because it felt like a contemporary twist on the computer that was previously used," Culvenor says. "It was more of a stylistic choice and a way to evolve the format somewhat, but not to an extent where we were leaving behind any of those crucial framework points that made it so great."
Culvenor also confirms that the players did not have those phones at other points during production, and going forward in the back half of the season they would not come into play on missions, only elimination events.
The short answer is no, production never stepped in in such a crucial or game-changing way, Culvenor says.
"Even if someone stumbles on who they think is the Mole, we don't confirm or deny it [on the show], so people's lens of who they suspect is constantly shifting every single episode, so we never were concerned," he explains. "We were never in a situation where we had to step in because everyone's aperture was changing constantly, and that's what's great about the show."
Culvenor notes that the best players were "building a profile" of who they thought the Mole was from the beginning, observing everything and narrowing down their selections the more they got to know those who they were playing with (and the smaller that playing field became anyway).
"You might be able to hide for a few episodes, but if you don't really start actively trying to suspect and go after the Mole, you'll go home," he says.
After the first five episodes of Netflix's version of The Mole, do you already think you know who the true saboteur is? Netflix releases new episodes of The Mole on Fridays through Oct. 21.