We're beginning to miss Julie Chen!

"The Mole," Episode 2: In which the French Riviera is made to seem boring.

Published January 17, 2001 7:16PM (EST)

Jeff Probst's mien said, "Dude!" and Julie Chen's said, "Huh?"

That of Anderson Cooper, our host on "The Mole," says, softly and with a sort of unattractive swallowing tic, "Gray."

When the bland Coop tries to look serious, he gets a slightly canine look of indecision on his face, giving the show the intrepid hosting leadership roughly that of a confused poodle.

Coop, it turns out, is a dynamic ABC news correspondent. A network biography on Cooper makes him sound like a veritable Wolf Blitzer, studying Vietnamese, spending time in Somalia and winning swanky awards from institutions like the National Educational Film and Video Festival for a report on Islam.

He's supposed to add an international flair to this lame program. But he's just a stiff, mumbling guy who looks at his watch a lot.

We'd rather watch Wolf Blitzer rearrange himself.

Coop isn't even the chief annoyance of "The Mole." There are certain people who should not be allowed to wield walkie-talkies, and nine of them are on the show right now. In this episode, the series' second, walkie-talkies are everywhere, and the cast is yelling, "Do you copy? Do you copy?" and "Negative!" almost constantly.

The group is still staying at a chateau in the South of France. This show starts with Stephen, the undercover cop, getting kidnapped late at night. We see it all in a night-vision camera, just like in "Big Brother" when we saw Jordan feel up Josh.

Roger that!

Stephen gets taken to a castle and is locked up, with shackles on his legs and an iron mask on his face.

Over breakfast in the morning, Cooper calls the group: They have to first find him (Coop) and then find Stephen.

Already there are two dumb things. First, we're supposed to believe that Stephen is being kept shackled and in the mask for what appears to be eight or 10 hours.

Second, it turns out that it's not that hard for the group to find Coop because ... they get a note that tells them where he is.

This is true drama.

There follows a lot of running around on land, scooting about on sea and flitting hither and yon in air (via helicopter). The group tracks Stephen down to an island off Cannes, but when they get there someone's missing -- Jennifer, the gay snowboarder. Because the group isn't there en masse, the players lose the challenge and all the money.

Jennifer and Henry, the friendly bartender, get into an argument. Jim, the helicopter pilot, throws a key onto the ground angrily.

OK, it's not "The Sopranos." So sue ABC.

The angle of "The Mole," you will remember, is that the group accomplishes the challenges to win money. It's the mole's job to screw things up so the group doesn't win any money.

But all of the characters are still unclear at this point. It's hard to figure out whom to root for, or any reason to root for anyone.

What clues that exist are off-kilter, and since you don't really feel the show is being put together or edited by competent people, you can't judge what you see. For example, at one point Henry and Jennifer are up in a helicopter. Via that blasted walkie-talkie, Henry tells the other players that Jennifer is "demanding" that the helicopter land 'cause she was feeling nauseated; Jennifer quickly says: "I'm not demanding! I'm not demanding!"

Is she trying to sabotage the rescue by pretending to be sick? Or is Henry trying to make her look bad? We can't tell because we didn't get to see her make the original request.

Similarly, when Henry and Jennifer battle later on after she gets lost, they are arguing whether she went away voluntarily or because he told her to. But, again, we don't get to see the actual scene where they split up.

The result isn't provocative; it's just irritating.

"She bald-faced lied!" Henry says later, but it's not convincing.

The second challenge is another colossal bore; three of the group have to decide whether a Cartier watch is real or not. We would describe the trio's exciting decision-making process, except for the fact that it wasn't that exciting -- and it wasn't a process, either. In the end, after a thrilling walk up a hill, they ... take a wild guess, and happen to be right.

The other six have another challenge. They split into three pairs. For each test, one of the pair goes into a maze in a cornfield at night; the other, via walkie-talkie, is supposed to guide them through. There's some more night-vision camera work; the people running through the maze wear weird helmets with cameras attached, giving their runs through the maze an eerie, "Blair Witch"-style glow.

In the end, none of them make it through the field.

Each week, one contestant gets booted off the show. They all have to take a test about the mole on a computer, and the person who does the worst on the test loses.

On the first week of "The Mole," a goofy older Hispanic guy named Manuel got bounced; these reality TV shows, deliberately or not, inevitably work to eliminate the old and the non-white. Think of Sonja and Ramona on "Survivor," Will Mega on "Big Brother ..."

OK, let's not think of Will on "Big Brother."

But will "The Mole" be any different?

Uh, no.

This time it's Afi -- she's black.

We see a collage looking back at her, just like the one poor goofy Manuel got last week. It includes dramatic footage of Afi at a French ATM machine.

"The Mole" is not a hit; ratings for this show are way down from last week. If the drop continues at the same rate, only family and friends will be left watching at the thrilling conclusion, now seven weeks away.

Bill Wyman

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