Bury the hatchet

Episode 7: Anderson Cooper -- know-nothing host, humble mumbler, defender of art. Plus: Charlie walks the plank!

By Salon Staff

Published February 21, 2001 2:20PM (EST)

In tonight's introduction, a minute or so before our host, Anderson Cooper, says -- as we predicted he would last week -- "... and then there were four," he gives a précis of the game.

You know the drill: 10 players, one of them the mole. As Coop puts it, "The mole is working for us."

Coop is using the word "us" loosely.

Time was that TV hosts were like Alex Trebek. They knew everything. Guys like Walter Cronkite actually ran news operations. Things are different now. Dan Rather can call an election wrong twice in the same night and plead ignorance. He was just saying what he was told to say.

Coop is the latest of a new breed of TV hosts. Like Regis Philbin and Julie Chen, the lovable ditz from "Big Brother," the show's producers keep him in the dark as much as possible.

He's just this guy who wanders around mumbling and tries to look as if he knows what's happening, when he really doesn't.

But it makes us feel good that he's there. Coop used to be an ABC News guy, just as Chen used to be a CBS News gal. (For all we know she still is; we don't really keep up with what CBS's "The Early Show" is doing these days.)

He gives the show a little bit of that ABC News gravitas.

But even Chen enunciated.

Coop is still mumbling and we're still in Spain as the penultimate episode of "The Mole" opens. The promos for the show said the contestants would be in four countries. They've been in France and Spain so far; we've been waiting for the next big trip, but now we think the producers are including both the States, where the show started seven weeks ago, and Monaco, which the contestants briefly visited, in their country count.

Is Monaco technically a country? It's the size of an average U.S. shopping mall, doesn't have its own police force and has become such a haven for money laundering that France is about to take away what country privileges it has.

Anyway, where were we?

Oh, yeah: And then there were four! There are three 30-ish kids -- Steve, the undercover cop; Kathryn, the legal lecturer; and Jim, the lawyer turned helicopter pilot -- and one old guy, Charlie, who's a retired cop and kind of a flaming asshole.

Charlie has girl trouble, big time -- he got into regular screaming matches with some of his since-departed distaff fellow contestants. Last week, he called Kate, the cheerful mom, a "fat bitch."

Tonight we see that he's got boy trouble as well. He makes a reference to Jim, who's gay and has unbearably long sideburns, as being "fruity."

Coop says he needs two people who can count up to 751. He ends up with Charlie and Steve, who have to herd a big flock of sheep into a pen. The pair are shown three dogs -- a German shepherd, a sheepdog and a mutt -- and told that one of them is a trained sheepdog. They're allowed to choose one to help.

Steve says sheepdogs don't really herd sheep, and chooses the mutt.

Wrong! Turns out they should have picked the German shepherd.

So the two of them spend a lot of time wandering around shouting at sheep. It seems as if Charlie's being deliberately unhelpful. But "The Mole" is edited so poorly that you don't ever really get a sense of what the pair were doing or how, eventually, they get the sheep into the pen. For all we can tell, it could have been magic.

Or Coop and a crook.

Or vicious crocodiles lurking around the sun-kissed outback.

Sorry, wrong reality show.

Steve and Charlie are also supposed to count the sheep, but the two don't even try. They don't get that the "751" reference was the answer.

Again, here in distilled form is what's wrong with "The Mole." The mole is supposed to sabotage the group's efforts to accomplish challenges and win money. But he or she can't be too obvious. The other players have to guess who the mole is, but also act suspicious to mislead the other characters.

So either Steve or Charlie could have been clumsily trying not to herd the sheep. Either Steve or Charlie could have pretended not to have noticed that Coop had already given them the answer to a question.

And the show is constructed so poorly that the viewers never feel as if they're getting the whole story and can make a judgment in any of these cases.

Meanwhile, Jim and Kathryn are taken to an art gallery and told to make a piece of conceptual art. If they fool an art critic with it, they get $20,000.

We get a lot of jokes about art. "Vut do you know about aht?" Jim says with a mock German accent, the cutup. Coop, who as a Vanderbilt probably knows his way around an art gallery, looks on and makes wry comments.

"I've heard Picasso found much of his materials in the dump," Coop says sagely.

When the pair decide to make a selection of artworks and then pick the best one, Coop chimes in again: "Building an oo-vrah -- I commend you," he says.

The pair finally decide on a wooden box with a couple of boxing gloves hanging out of it.

A British art critic brought in to analyze the gallery makes short work of the challenge.

"It's a victory for art!" Coop says, relieved. The value of the Vanderbilt family art collection remains steady.

Steve and Charlie are brought in as well to take the same challenge. They haven't a clue.

After a break, we see some home-movie-style footage of Kathryn giving Jim a haircut. She leaves a not-too-attractive uneven trim at the nape of his neck.

We are sad to report that she does nothing about his sideburns.

Next, Coop tells the group to each list whom they'd like to see kicked off the show, whom they'd like to see remain on the show.

"They are afraid the information might be used against them," Coop says.

Coop comes back to say he doesn't even care who their least favorite contestant is. It's obvious in any case that it would be hair-trigger Charlie, whom none of the other three like.

The person who got the most positive votes was Steve. He's thereupon given a weird job. He has to persuade each of the other three to do something scary -- be a target for a hatchet thrower, walk through hot coals or walk out on a plank over a ravine. In each case, the player is to be blindfolded.

There's a pointlessly complex set of rewards. Basically, Steve's trying to get all three to do his bidding, and he'll get immunity at the execution that night.

The other three need to have two of them, but not all three, do his bidding. That gets them money, but doesn't give Steve immunity.

Coop has the group put their votes into a vase, à la "Survivor." The hot-coals walk is also right out of that other, better reality TV show.

During the first part of the hatchet test Kathryn is reluctant to participate, and finally faints. You feel sort of bad for her, but then realize she could be the mole and faking things.

After she wakes up, Steve and the now-blindfolded Kathryn coo to each other:

"I put you last!

"I put you last as well!"


"I want you to do it!"

"I don't think I can do it!"

In the end, instead of actually throwing the hatchet, a guy walks up to her and plants it in the door next to her head.

It's an old sideshow trick, one that lets the audience laugh at the expense of the poor volunteer who thinks that knives and hatchets are zipping past her skull. The gag kind of loses something in translation here. Maybe because we were rooting for the hatchet.

Steve easily gets Jim to walk through coals, but it turns out they're not hot after all. They actually were on "Survivor."

The Charlie part is perhaps the best moment so far broadcast on "The Mole." He has a harness on, but he actually does walk out, blindfolded, being guided by Steve inch by inch, 6 feet or so out over a ravine.

The elderly guy is shaking with fear by the end, and it's quite scary to watch. Despite the harness you could imagine him bashing his head against the board or the edge of the ravine if he fell.

Anyway, all three end up trusting Steve; that gives him immunity that night.

At the execution session after dinner, Charlie gets bounced! It's surprising he lasted as long as he did. "These young whiz kids have sharper minds than I do," he says.

Now Charlie can go back to his old life and browbeat women off camera.

Steve's just all aglow about having persuaded all three of the others to do something scary. "I'm humbled by you guys," he says.

Later, to the camera, he says, "All three told me there's nothing they wouldn't do for me." He gets a little teary, even!

Next week is the final edition of "The Mole": One person will be executed, one will win the pot, which is at about half a million, and one person will be shown to be the mole.

We can hardly wait.

-- Bill Wyman

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Salon Staff

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