Why The ’90s Were Better: The Mole vs. Whodunnit

**Editor’s Note: I understand that The Mole began airing in 2001, which technically does not fall in the ’90s. However, it’s been stated several times on this blog that my version of the ’90s officially started in 1993 and went to 2003. The Mole was a ’90s show, and the conversation is over.

**Another Editor’s Note: I understand that the official name of the show is “Whodunnit?” with an obnoxious question mark at the end of it. With all due respect to the creatives who probably focus-grouped that punctuation ad nauseum, I’ve omitted it from the proper title throughout this post in the interest of readability. We don’t need this to be another MURDER! At the Disco.

Years from now, we will discuss television in terms of BDVR and ADVR (translation: after commercials). BDVR shows were one-time live events. You had to clear your calendar, coordinate scheduling with members of your household, time bathroom breaks, not take phone calls, etc. to make sure you got it all.

Months ago, when I started watching the newest season of The Bachelorette, I started seeing commercials for a new ABC show called “Whodunnit” that the entire internet was proclaiming as the next “The Mole.” As far as I’m concerned, The Mole was the pinnacle of BDVR reality gameshows. It had everything I wanted in a TV show and occurred at the height of what I consider to be the ’90s.

Mole vs. Whodunnit

Shows in the time of our DVR have the advantage of pausing, rewinding and saving episodes for later review. They need to be made with the understanding that the average watcher is now more intelligently diagnosing the action and with more widespread internet usage, the producers are really playing keepaway with the whole community at all times. I was thrilled to watch someone take the intricacies of the best BDVR show and turn it into a smarter, more information-packed thriller for a new generation of more operationally-equipped, interactive television viewers.

There have only been three episodes of Whodunnit and so far, the Mole comparisons are falling apart. Hard. These two shows are just the most recent example of the cornerstone SpreeGoogs theory that everything that could have happened already happened in the ’90s and is only now happening again. But worse. Here’s a breakdown of how current television can’t stand up to ’90s TV.

About The Mole
Originally airing circa 5 BDVR, The Mole is the first television show that I ever obsessed over. I had a small group of Mole friends at my junior high that would watch every show in real time with me and take notes to bring to school the next day. Puberty be damned, it was all I talked about for two months.

Here’s how The Mole worked: there were 10 people, nine actual contestants and one mole. The job of the nine contestants was to work together to win challenges and solve puzzles in order to put money into a group pot that would eventually go to the contestant who lasted the longest. The job of the mole was to sabotage these missions without getting caught. Here’s the show’s intro, to refresh your memory:

At the end of every episode, all the players took a quiz about who the mole was and whoever knew the least was eliminated from the show.

About Whodunnit
When Whodunnit was originally announced, it was instantly heralded as the next Mole and I decided to be hooked, becasue the comparison made sense. There’s also a very real comparison to one of my favorite novels.

Whodunnit has 13 contestants (more like 12 because the first person was eliminated about 10 minutes in) and all of them have to work together to solve weekly murder mysteries. Except one person is actually the killer. At the end of each episode, there is a quiz and the person who knows the least about the killer’s identity and how they killed the last victim is eliminated. Here’s the show’s teaser to bring you up to speed:

Of course, “eliminated” in this case means they are killed CSI-style and the next episode investigates that murder. This cyclical, self-perpetuating element is actually very cool. Cooler than the eliminations the Mole contestants went through.

What The Mole had going for it
As far as I know, The Mole was the first of its kind, so there were no expectations. That worked great, because every emotion was new and the contestants in the game were figuring out the way to play it at the same rate we were. Who do you share information with? Who can you trust? Should you intentionally sabotage missions so the group incorrectly thinks you’re the mole? Should you form partnerships? All of this was new and it was fantastic.

Suspicious looking, right?

Suspicious looking, right?

We don’t yet know Whodunnit’s killer, but Kathryn Price was incredibly good as the mole in the first season (I’ll use the first season as my reference point because Whodunnit is in it’s first season). Sure, she may have looked effective because that’s the way they edited the show or because she had no standard for comparison, but in retrospect (you wouldn’t be a fan if you didn’t watch the whole season again to see how she did it), she really did manage to do just enough screw up most challenges. Kathryn’s experience as a lawyer was probably the perfect background for someone who needed to live a double life for so long. No joke, in addition to the lying she had to do with the other contestants, Kathryn had to fake on-air testimonials for the viewing audience and even maintain a fake daily journal that the other players would eventually go through.

Ultimately, The Mole was nine episodes of curious people watching other curious people on TV trying to figure out the same thing. No matter what was happening, the weight of discovering the mole’s identity hovered over everything and the show gave you so much information that it genuinely seemed possible to figure it all out, you were only one step away.

What Whodunnit has going for it

No one really knows what the "killer" does during the shows

No one really knows what the “killer” does during the shows

You get to play along and no mystery genre is more well-developed than the murder mystery. Even when it’s pretend, everyone knows how it goes: someone is dead; there are clues at the scene of the crime; as the investigation goes on, you find out more about the suspects. Ultimately, the dots connect for someone or an alibi falls apart and someone is guilty. It’s the same thing that has made CSI so popular for so long (sorry for so many references, but the CSI creator is also behind Whodunnit, so the overlap is worth discussing). Hell, it’s the same thing that made Scooby Doo popular. Murder mysteries grab your attention.

At its core, Whodunnit is basically a reality version of And Then There Were None, the best mystery book from the best mystery writer ever. There’s even a cap-tip to Agatha Christie in episode two’s St. Agatha medal. Whodunnit is a series of simple, solvable mysteries with a lot of interpersonal, information-witholding drama.

Why the ’90s were better
I’ve watched all three episodes of Whodunnit and I’m already tired of it being compared to The Mole. I don’t even know if I can keep watching it. I foolishly thought that something created today could contend with something created in the’90s, and I was way off, but let me do my best at nailing down exactly why the ’90s show is superior. Here are a list of reasons in no particular order:

  • The mole was actually sabotaging challenges; the Whodunnit killer isn’t killing anything — There is a 1:1 correlation between the experience the contestants are having on a reality show and the experience the viewers have. When the Whodunnit field experiences a murder, they act fake because the killing is fake and whole thing compounds to be pretty unwatchable. I’m definitely not in favor of any actual murders happening, but the show has no choice but to come off as dripping with fake and that’s no bueno in a “reality” game show environment. There’s an understood risk in the mole sabotaging challenges because they have to toe the line between being ineffective and being caught, so the audience even empathizes a little with the mole, but the Whodunnit killer doesn’t even need to be present to “kill” anyone, they can just sleep comfortably in their beds while the producers explain to the next victim that they are being “murdered” gruesomely.
  • The mole sabotaged missions on camera; all of the Whodunnit’s killers secret actions take place off camera — In a way, this helps the audience go through exactly what the contestants go through. In the mole, we were seeing it all and trying to fit millions of pieces of evidence into one logical story, a impossibility that seemed dangerously reachable. In Whodunnit, we are only seeing the aftermath and trying to line up planted clues to reach the logical conclusion the show’s producers have laid out for us. However, the strength of The Mole was that when watching it, viewers knew they had to pay attention to every little detail because they could be watching the molery at any moment. In Whodunnit,  there’s little to figure out on your own, there’s only watching to see the contestants figure it out. Sure, you could scrape together the four or five clues that the story creators have lined up to lead to the “how” a murder was done, but there are never clues to the overriding “who” question.
  • The mole’s interests were at odds with the rest of the field; the Whodunnit killer has the same strategy as the field — Because of the way The Mole was set up, contestants had to work together to complete missions in order to put money into the pot for the winner. At the end of the game, it didn’t matter if they were the only one standing if they hadn’t worked with each other to get a healthy reward. The duplicity of the necessary friend/enemy dichotomy that charged the relationship between every individual and the community was constantly palpable. In Whodunnit, the killer wants the information about each murder to be kept to a minimum. Conveniently, so does each contestant, because the less the field knows, the fewer questions they’ll get right about the crime and the higher the possibility that someone else will go home. Each episode of Whodunnit is 5 minutes of murder scene, then 10 minutes of “investigating” manufactured crime scenes and then 45 of backbiting and information withholding. The Whodunnit contestants have an open contempt for each other and through three episodes have split into two teams that don’t need to work with each other at all for anything. The Mole’s variable pot forced everyone to cooperate with enemies for the good of the group; Whodunnit’s fixed prize doesn’t encourage anything but eliminating people, which makes for bad TV.
  • Contestants on The Mole were intelligent; contestants on Whodunnit are morons — There isn’t much more to it. The people on The Mole solved complex puzzles and consistently over-achieved. Every episode of Whodunnit involves around 40 minutes of all the contestants running around hiding form each other and not telling anyone the truth. That’s the only game there is: Who won’t tell who what. It gets old. Most of this is the result of setup differences between the two shows. On The Mole, everyone needed to work together to complete challenges and get more money in the group pot. On Whodunnit, there’s not really any reason for anyone to share clues with anyone. The contestants on The Mole were constantly collecting massive amounts of data and information and the only collaborating that happened between contestants was to form hypotheses and pick out the important parts of a intensely-detailed accounts of challenges. Whodunnit’s detectives collectively have somewhere in the neighborhood of five important pieces of information to discover each episode and that’s it. The amount of information is finite and the viewer gets all the pieces quickly.
  • The Mole felt like a contest; Whodunnit feels like a made-for-tv movie — Maybe it’s because Whodunnit episodes are basically just 42-minute procedurals. Maybe it’s because The Mole was hosted by a real person (Anderson Cooper) and Whodunnit is hosted by an actor playing a stereotypical character (Giles, the butler). Maybe it’s because every episode of Whodunnit ends with a neat little packaged answer to the mystery and The Mole often ended with more questions than it started with. Whatever the reason, there’s just nothing about Whodunnit that leaves you guessing when it goes off the air. It’s more like you’re watching people play a game than you’re playing along with them.

That’s all I have to say for this chapter of The ’90s vs. today. Let me know what you think The Mole or Whodunnit in the comments and we’ll keep this discussion going there.