Edited July 4, 2013 to fix typos and finish off a paragraph I'd somehow left dangling.
So, The Mole is back. And even though the last season way back in 2005 pretty much all but smeared the show's reputation with its own excrement, there was still a loyal fanbase with high expectations for this. Did it meet those expectations? In short, no. Not really. As in, grab a plunger and some heavy-duty gloves. But how on earth have they managed to fuck up a show that should be impossible to fuck up... for the third time? And how have they managed to do it so completely?
The attempts to advertise and promote this show have all been abysmal failures. From being announced as "The Mole: Culture Clash" and dropping the title almost immediately after it was criticised as suggesting deliberate "Racism, yay!" undertones (and it will hopefully not come as a surprise that I'll be discussing that in more detail later), to the official website making a point of how the long-running Dutch version films in a different country each year even though it makes Seven look cheap by filming this season domestically, to not even revealing the show's airdate until eight days out and then doing so through a random tweet from new host Shura Taft, to then not adding the timeslot to the commercials themselves and adding a tag at the end as an afterthought... frankly, it's a wonder anybody watched at all.
And then there's the "Coming Soon!" commercial. Appearing on screens since the Australian Open tennis tournament in late January, despite Seven knowing the show wouldn't air for months, the jawdroppingly stupid slapstick commercials only served to alienate those who remembered and appreciated the tone the good seasons of the old version had, and somehow managed to simultaneously be too light-hearted and too mean-spirited. It's quite astonishing, really. But what's more surprising is that they weren't shot down in the pre-production phase, given it's about as representative as advertising Lost with clips from Gilligan's Island and expecting people not to care because hey, tropical island.
By the way, speaking of Shura, Twitter, and promotion? I've discussed the promo failures on Twitter a few times, and on at least two occasions he's replied to tell me, basically, that I wouldn't be complaining if I'd seen the show itself. But... shouldn't a better job have been done advertising the damn show in the first place, so it wouldn't even have become an issue? He also responded to a direct criticism of the comedic tone, saying the Mole takes their job very seriously. Which'd be great, if it didn't miss the point entirely. It's not the Mole I'm worried about, it's The Mole I'm worried about. (Again, more Shura later.)
Scheduling, Pacing, and Editing
Can we please get away from the misguided idea that running a show multiple nights a week, when it's not a show that suits such a format, is in any way preferable? Or did we learn absolutely NOTHING from the runaway success that was Celebrity Splash? Because The Mole is definitely a show that needs to be on only one night a week. This is a show where you really need to sit down and focus, and honestly, people have better things to do. The Block sucks, but it rates fairly well as a stripped show because it's mindless entertainment where you don't have to pay too much attention. This... is not mindless entertainment, and any more than one episode a week is just overkill. It's not like there's a valid reason to saturate the schedule with a show that works infinitely better in small doses - and there's evidence of this in several countries where The Amazing Race (tonally a very close analog to The Mole) is aired multiple times a week. It just. Doesn't. WORK.
But all that could have been said before the show began. Watching the first episode, it gets even worse. You see, because Seven have decided to have so many episodes, it means what would normally have been shown within the space of a single one-hour episode now apparently takes three. And each episode is also fifteen minutes longer. Because nothing says "stressful situation" like filler. Repetitive filler. If you're going to explain the basic format of the show over the opening credits, you don't need to explain the Mole's function over and over again during the show. We get it already, and it's condescending. Quit it.
Consider this: The first challenge of the season was taken from the 2012 Dutch season, where it was considerably more difficult (players travelled individually and weren't told which direction to travel, only to get to the landmark in the photo) and was tedious after five minutes, let alone the twenty minutes it was shown for in its episode. Here, a much easier version of the challenge was shown for almost an entire hour. Why? No freaking clue. You want the show to be event television, with plenty of time to develop your cast? Show a slightly longer episode - either ninety minutes or two full hours - once a week. Best of both worlds.
It probably sounds a bit early to be criticising this, having only seen one-and-a-half challenges, but five have been revealed in one format or another. Three of them - the opening hiking challenge, the sandbag challenge seen in the preview for tonight's episode, and a signalling challenge listed on the TV guides for next Tuesday - are adapted from the Dutch version, meaning I'm familiar enough with them from my work on the challenge guide to know whether they will work or not, while a fourth also sounds like it's a less direct adaptation of a Dutch challenge, and the fifth is one of the ones we've seen already. And, honestly, it's a remarkably underwhelming bunch.
When you're trying to have a big beginning to your show, you don't start with a challenge that at its heart is just 'walk over there, carrying this'. You certainly shouldn't ever do it for the first three challenges in a row. And yet it seems they have. For the first challenge, it's "walk in this direction with your suitcases". In the second, it's "walk across a tightrope while transferring a baton in a relay". In the third, it's "walk along a marked path while carrying a makeshift stretcher loaded with sandbags". Even in one of the remaining two, the challenge appears to (in part) be "walk through a cave, carrying keys found along the way". It's ridiculous. It's not as if these challenges are so kickass that it can be overlooked. Hell, they don't even require twelve people - the suitcase and sandbag challenges weren't originally designed for twelve people (the suitcase one was for ten, the sandbag stretchers for eight), and you can easily cut one pair out of the tightrope challenge and do it with ten.
Also, let me just leave you with this: If players had to transfer the relay baton over to each other while on the tightrope, then pass each other to finish their respective journeys, doesn't that mean the baton travels back to where it began, defeating the entire purpose of the challenge?
Casting (Both the Contestants and the Host)
As much as the above issues irritate, they could have been mitigated somewhat if the cast was enjoyable enough to overcome them. But they're not. Not by a long shot. In fact, between those who are utterly unpleasant and those who are merely boring beyond belief I can't honestly say I'm looking forward to watching any of these people again tonight. And the sad thing is this was set in stone even before the audition phase, with the bizarre decision to subtitle the season 'Culture Clash' - a hint many took to mean 'a couple of token minorities and a bunch of white people to tell them to go back to where they came from'.
To be fair, this tagline was scrapped in record time after the astoundingly negative reaction (which speaks well of Australia, but not of the people who thought it was a good idea to begin with), but it seems as though the people responsible for actually casting the show didn't get the memo. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for having fewer straight white bogans on Australian reality shows - it's among the largest of the many things that killed Big Brother the first time around - but if you're going to do so you have to have the right context. And I feel like it wouldn't be too hyperbolic of me to say that doing so on a show all about fostering suspicion and distrust, with the planned subtitle mentioned above, on the same network that shows Border Security and Today Tonight, and which insists on casting the same 'Camp Gay' and 'Bitchy Asian Girls' stereotypes on My Kitchen Rules every season is about even with "Pauline Hanson campaign fundraiser" in terms of being the right context. (In related news: Four Queenslanders in this twelve-person cast. All white, all having some variation of "I tell it like it is, that's just who I am, fuck you if you think that makes me an obnoxious asshole" in their media kit bio.) In this case, either you're enforcing a negative stereotype about a minority contestant by making them the designated villain, or you're making it look like a white player has been hired to stop a minority player from profiting. Neither is a good look for the show or for Seven.
Just doing it (without being forced by a negative reaction to how white the previous season's cast was, as was the case with The Amazing Race Australia) and not even trying to make a big deal about it would be a start - compare the reception given to Big Brother 2008 (which got the show cancelled) and Masterchef 2010 (where more than a quarter of the country watched the finale). For an international perspective, compare the preliminary reactions given to Survivor: Cook Islands (twenty players initially divided into four teams by race) and The Amazing Race 10 (which featured among its twelve teams a gay couple, a lesbian, black single mothers, two non-Arabic Islamic guys, Korean brothers, an Indian couple, and an amputee). Casting a minority just so you can say you did - which based on the subtitle was evidently the case here - is just as closed-minded as deliberately not casting any minorities. It's like that person in everyone's life who thinks "I can't be racist, my boyfriend's sister's fiance's cousin is black!" Do you really want to be that person, show?
One of the things this show used to do so well was its casting. Yes, you got the requisite pretty people, but you also got a bunch of normal, unremarkable people who (while not always likable) were far more interesting. To be simplistic for a second, the casting comes across a bit like they were asked to consider what made the first season so great and came up with, "Josephine". Where are the Jans? The Lindas? The Patricks? The Beverleys? Even in later seasons, we had Brooke, Hal, Mal, Fiona, John, Helen, Marc, Bob, Ann-Maree, David, Thao, Kris, Josh, Greg, Stace, Craig, Liane, Mark, Brett, and Sonya. Not necessarily all nice people, but I get the feeling none of them would have gotten past the first stage of the audition - even with Thao, the only non-Caucasian contestant in the first five seasons, they'd probably be like "Law student? Sorry, we have two of them already. Try again next year."
Finally, there's the host. Through Twitter and his past television work, Shura Taft comes across as a genuinely nice, cool guy. And that's a huge part of the problem. Being nice and trying to be the players' friend doesn't work on The Mole (as proven with Tom Williams's spectacular flame-out), and Shura isn't good at not being nice. Though wooden at times, he's at least conscious enough of the format not to try buddying up to the contestant, but finding the right tone for hosting on this show is a tough balancing act, and at times he comes across (intentionally or otherwise) as a smug dick. Smug works in small doses, but even then you've got to have the gravitas required to pull it off. Grant Bowler absolutely had it. So did Anderson Cooper in the US version, and Glenn Hugill in the British version, and Karel van de Graaf in the Dutch version. Shura? Not so much. Time will tell, and it may just be a nervous start, but between the seasons covered in the challenge guide and those watched since, I've been exposed to a total of sixteen hosts over eight countries, and without quick improvement Shura will be firmly inside the bottom three.
Should have been an easy sell. Should have been fast and exciting, dragging viewers along for the ride. Should have had great, inventive challenges. Should have had a cast you can root for in their fight against the Mole. Should have had a host who felt like a natural fit. On all five counts, Seven and the producers dropped the ball. And all the impressive visuals and stylish graphics in the world can't save a show that's been that much of a misfire. The problem with this show is that either (1) it becomes a runaway success and they think there's no reason to bother changing anything, or (2) it doesn't do as well as Seven hoped and they axe it again, this time for good. And neither of those options is what this show deserves. This show deserves better. If the quality of what we've seen so far is any indication, I feel entirely justified in saying I could do better. I shouldn't. But really. I could do better.