Reality TV shows don’t get any more dissimilar than time-period competitors American Idol: The Search for a Superstar, a singing competition for which Whitney Houston and Celine Dion could be brought to trial for brainwashing a generation of youths with bad taste in clothes holding notes that threaten to make their throbbing heads explode, and The Mole, or, as ABC and we fans delight in calling it properly, Mole 2: The Next Betrayal. This title sounds like something the network might’ve had copyrighted for a shelved Bill Clinton miniseries, but instead decided to use it here.

American Idol, like so much reality programming, is a British import — over there, it’s Pop Idol, masterminded by Simon Fuller, the cad who perpetrated the Spice Girls. But Idol’s premise is as American — and as old — as Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, which first aired in 1948: Bring on a raft of young performers, let the viewers decide who’ll win, and hand them a prize. Ted Mack doled out scholarships; Idol promises the graduation gift that matters most these days: stardom, in the form of a record contract.

Before viewers can phone in votes for someone like Tamyra Gray, who makes ”And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” sound more like a threat than a manifesto, the contestants must be evaluated by three judges. Singer/dancer/cheerleader/camp counselor Paula Abdul and record producer Randy Jackson (so obscure he’s often ID’d in the press as ”no relation to Michael”) give bland, banal brush-offs, but U.K. record exec Simon Cowell is Kingsley Amis in a muscle shirt, viperish in his stinging dismissals (”He looks like a corpse, and he is sooo corrrny”) that can reduce American contestants — their emotions soft and tingly sensitive from lifetimes of soothing, Oprah-fied, ”constructive” criticism — to tears or hurt anger.

Cowell was dubbed Mr. Nasty in the English press; over here, he’s more like Mr. Anne Robinson — his cheeky tweaks are amusing at first, but as the weeks go by they’re the show’s weakest link. No, strike that: I forgot Idol’s hosts, Brian Dunkleman and Ryan Seacrest, gel-tousled dunderheads who exist to look shocked at Cowell’s insults, and who repeatedly ask emotionally drained contestants if they’d like an ice-cold can of a certain cola brand that cosponsors the show.

Idol is a shamefully addictive cross between Ed McMahon’s old Star Search and Chuck Barris’ hoary, whore-y The $1.98 Beauty Show. In recent years, America has adopted England’s attitude about pop music — that it’s disposable fodder. Over here, we used to speak of singers as ”artists” with ”authenticity” and long, nurtured careers. Over there, last week’s smash group Westlife gives way to this week’s Will Young, the Brit Idol winner; their hits are jingly junk that everyone goes mad for until the tunes vanish like dust motes after three weeks. As TV, American Idol is crazily entertaining; as music, it’s dust-mote inconsequential. Whoever survives the show’s grueling winnowing-down process (the finale airs Sept. 4) will doubtless be so eager to sell out, his or her recording debut will likely be another piece of corporate product.

More clever and loosey-goosey is Mole 2, in which 14 players wing off to Europe to complete ”games,” such as carrying a greased gnome while riding a bike (see — you already regret missing this show, right?), that win them money (up to a cool million). Among them is a ”mole,” a ringer thrown in to disrupt the competitions and inspire vicious paranoia. At the end of each episode, the contestants take a 10-question quiz (”What is The Mole’s favorite food?”); whoever answers the least number correctly is ”executed” — sent packing.

We’re now more than halfway through Mole 2’s run, but you can still get on board. Host Anderson Cooper, currently reestablishing himself as a journalist by getting up early with Paula Zahn on CNN, is exquisitely Mole droll; his deadpan stares as players blubber and sweat through challenges are more wittily devastating than Cowell’s sneers. Cooper’s weekly voice-over — ”Watch for the clue to the identity of the Mole” — is silly: As we learned in the first Mole, the clues are more absurdly convoluted than an Agatha Christie mystery on LSD. But this denseness is what gives Mole its charm. (For the record, I think bespectacled, serene, well-muscled Darwin is the Mole — even his name suggests a survivor of the fittest.)

ABC has jerked this series around in its schedule, failing to realize that like CBS’ Big Brother, it has far more potential to become a cult fave with mass appeal. Maybe the real mole is actually an ABC programming weasel, doing his or her best to kill off the series.

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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