Television

The Deviously Addictive Reality Show That’s Taking the World by Storm

Traitors is already a sensation in the U.K. Now it’s launching its British Invasion.

Alan Cumming, the host of the reality TV show 'The Traitors,' wears a tartan suit and is seated, with the cast surrounding him.
Peacock

A roomful of people is split at random into two groups. Most will be ordinary civilians, but a subset becomes a sinister fifth column, assigned to murder the layfolk by night. Only the baddies know one another’s identities. By day, the community strives to identify and banish the hidden outlaws among them. The cycle continues till only one side survives, either the most convincingly sincere or the most cunningly duplicitous. If those are two different things.

You might recognize that as the basic structure of “social deduction” parlor games such as Mafia, Werewolf, Secret Hitler, and the Thing, as well as their various adaptations (often redundant monetizations) as board or video games, most famously Among Us, which became an early COVID lockdown hit. Now it has become a TV format known in English as The Traitors, which started in the Netherlands and in the past two years has been franchised across a dozen territories and counting, including England, France, Spain, Norway, and Australia. Last weekend, the American version dropped its first 10-episode season in full on Peacock.

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A confessional: I’m not normally much of a reality TV watcher, outside of cozy craft- or cooking-based programs. However, there was a phase in the 2000s when Mafia and its variants became a prominent part of my social life. Those parties stand out in my mind for their hallucinogenic intensity, which irreversibly exposed the unreliability of character judgment and the thin membrane between truth and lies—including deceiving oneself, the most reliable method for a “traitor,” in the TV show’s argot, to mimic an innocent “faithful.” (I was often disconcertingly good at that part.) One could also learn these lessons from, say, marriage or parenthood or drug addiction. But these games contain them safely in a thrillingly absurdist simulation, so long as no one takes their friends’ double-crosses too seriously.

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So when I heard about The Traitors, I couldn’t resist. In the past month, I’ve devoured four international iterations: the U.K., U.S., and Australian versions as well as the original 2021 Dutch version, De Verraders, which I dug up online with fan-made subtitles. More hours than I’d care to divulge were passed consuming reviews, Reddit fan-theory threads, and podcasts like my droll favorite Laters, Traitors!, hosted by London broadcaster Geoff Lloyd and his expat American comedian partner Sara Barron.

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Herewith, then, I offer some spoiler-free findings.

I’m sorry to report that the U.S. take is decidedly the least of the four, due partly to commerce and partly to culture, if it’s possible in Hollywood to separate the two. In defiance of the syndrome of American remakes wrecking foreign originals, the attempt is still worth watching, as the core concept seems too resilient to be ruined. But Peacock’s adaptation comes close enough to squandering the format’s potential that I wonder if it will gain much traction.

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By contrast, the U.K. edition of Traitors, which ran on the BBC in the final weeks of 2022, became a national word-of-mouth phenomenon, to the point that the cast’s much-repeated self-defense, “I am 100 percent a faithful,” became a widespread catchphrase. Some Brits started bringing the concept full circle by hosting their own Traitors-themed parties. Fans are still fighting about whether one player destroyed or perfectly consummated the show in its finale, with a gambit that came bracingly close to breaching the rules.

What all the series have in common is expanding the game from an evening’s diversion among friends to a grueling marathon of 10 days or more with approximately 20 people, mostly strangers. If you’ve ever played a social-deduction game and know how mentally straining it can be to keep up a false identity for hours on end, you can imagine that this is a patently terrible idea, an irresponsible psychological study without a control group. This is also why it’s such a good format for reality television, which in its secret heart always aspires to the condition of the Stanford prison experiment. (To their credit, the cast has indicated in interviews that the producers of at least the U.S. and U.K. versions did have counselors on-site to monitor and assist with the players’ emotional health.)

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Instead of occurring in your apartment or rec room, the TV games take place in some grandiose manor house or so-called castle in a picturesque countryside. After a few hours of comparatively carefree mingling, the mock-solemn host—on the U.S. show, a lip-smackingly campy Alan Cumming, playing his Scottishness to the hilt in multicolored tartans and tam-o’-shanters—selects the traitors by circling around the seated, blindfolded group and patting the turncoats-to-be on the shoulder. The faithfuls don’t know how many, but usually three or four. Later that night, that literally hooded cabal confers in some torchlit den or turret to send a poison-pen letter to their first murder victim. The faithful find out who’s been put on ice when they see who doesn’t show up to breakfast.

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They then have their (slim) chance for revenge each evening at a confab around an ornate round table, where they fling accusations, mount defenses, burst into tears, have panic attacks, occasionally make a genuinely logical surmise, and finally vote someone out, who then rises and reveals their “true” game status before exiting for good. There are also unfortunately “missions” in each episode, quests and challenges they’re sent on, nominally to earn money for the final prize pot. As a viewer, these segments are tempting to skip through, but they seem necessary for group bonding and daily mental relief from the relentless paranoia. Otherwise, in their spare time, the players huddle gossiping in pairs or clusters in the bar or billiards room, forging ill-advised friendships and devising voting schemes they will usually be distracted or tricked out of within hours.

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All of the series drag at the start, when there are too many competitors to hold in your head. They become more addictive as the group thins out, relationships start to solidify, and you get more attached to people. Depending on the editing pace (the Australian one was particularly slow at first), this can take three or four episodes. While you wait for that tea to steep, though, you get to wallow in people’s capacity for self-delusion.

The Traitors demonstrates that almost everyone mistakenly believes they are above-average appraisers of character and truth-telling, when in fact those faculties are riddled with bias and misconception, leading to dire real-world consequences, especially in the legal system. Often Traitors cast members rationalize this unwarranted confidence via something in their backgrounds, such as an undergrad psych degree, or legal or military training. Would-be actors and other performers believe they have deep insight into dissembling behaviors. A U.K. character who declares himself “one of the top magic creators in the world” claims he has a special corner on manipulation, only to be brazenly wrong about everything. On the Australian show, one cast member claims to be a literal clairvoyant, while another says her many daily encounters as a grocery checkout clerk make her an ace at reading people. Guess what? None of this makes any of them noticeably better at the game. (Except maybe the checkout lady.) Some players even enter the show lying to conceal these supposed advantages, which only gets them ejected later when, for no good reason, they impulsively disclose their initial fibs.

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What the viewer can see and the scheming players can’t is that, until the traitors do something massively stupid, as most of them eventually will, the faithful have basically no valid evidence whatsoever to work with. For the first half of the season, they’re lucky if their hit rate is better than random chance. By the time there are enough murder patterns, Freudian slips, and self-contradictions to go on, any half-decent traitors will have eliminated most players bright enough to figure them out. Yet no matter how stacked with dum-dums, each series I watched culminated in a gripping finale of twists and triple bluffs, as arcane laws of Newtonian social dynamics sent players caroming against one another on ever-faster unpredictable vectors. Weirdly, despite the information imbalance in the traitors’ favor, either side can always win.

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This is the genius of The Traitors and the parlor games it’s based on: They generate an all-absorbing illusion of internal logic even as, from one remove, they illuminate the starkly ridiculous incoherence of social existence. That may spring from Mafia’s origin story: The pastime was invented by Moscow psychology student Dimitry Davidoff in the late 1980s, so it came out of a Soviet society in which genuine covert operatives were still lurking but their dwindling power became more thinkable to kid about. In the 1990s, Davidoff moved to the United States, where the game spread first among academics, literati, and early internet adopters. When it became popular in Silicon Valley, it was reinvented as Werewolf, supposedly to boost its cultural relevance, though maybe those rising tech millionaires just didn’t want to contemplate whether they might really be a lawless mafia.

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Dutch De Verraders creator Marc Pos, who pitched the concept for six years before finding a taker, has said he was also inspired by the story of a 17th-century shipwreck in which rumors of mutiny led to most of the island-stranded shipmates killing one another. Deep down, then, The Traitors isn’t an Agatha Christie whodunit or strategic procedural but Lord of the Flies. As the days pass, players become more blindly loyal to their tribes. They not only leap to conclude that anyone they dislike is a traitor, they begin to imagine that the traitors are inherently evil people, forgetting that the only reason they’re not traitors themselves is that the host didn’t pat their shoulders the first day. This is both profoundly depressing (in its illustration of the wellsprings of sexism, racism, classism, war, etc., etc.) and inadvertently hilarious, as when one U.K. player declares of another, “He could never be a traitor—he’s got kids!”

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That moment is typical of the BBC version, which, despite the blood sport, manages to maintain a feeling of purity and spontaneity, thanks in part to the jolly, caring atmosphere cultivated by its shag-headed host, Claudia Winkleman. The players’ grandstanding is somehow less important than the warmth and affection that builds between them. Egos are rampant yet secondary. Contrary to stiff-upper-lip English stereotypes, the U.K. players cry more than any others, and it seldom seems feigned. It’s the warm, fuzzy Great British Bake Off of backstabbing game series, which sets it up well as reality TV for people who don’t usually like reality TV.

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On Twitter, British actor and Sherlock creator Mark Gatiss called the show evidence that “linear TV isn’t dead” (as well as the “best telly in donkeys”), and a key factor in its success was that after it began airing three episodes a week on the BBC in late November (often vying for attention with the World Cup), other viewers gradually started catching up online, reaching critical mass over the holidays. Peacock’s one-stop streaming drop doesn’t promote that audience buildup, nor does it provide space between episodes for fan debates, which seems like an own goal.

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Even worse was the U.S. decision to stack half the cast with apparently well-known reality TV personalities from shows such as Survivor, Real Housewives, Big Brother, The Bachelor, and Below Deck. Obviously a bid to draw in already committed fans, it saddles The Traitors with myriad insider backstories that make the show far less transparent to all the reality TV skeptics who got hooked in the U.K. It’s not that the reality “celebrities,” as they call themselves, are bad competitors; one, Kate from Below Deck, even makes up for it by functioning as a kind of Andy Kaufman–esque comic saboteur. But they all play far more performatively to the camera, with a predetermined reality style, and cultivate unnecessary rivalries for the sake of capital-D Drama. Many of their game strategies are inorganic and based on foreknowledge of one another, as when Brandi, of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, accurately pinpoints two of her reality-show peers as traitors by the second episode.

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With few exceptions, these Bravo-multiverse figures and other pseudo-celebs hold themselves at some distance from the “normies” in the other half of the cast, so interactions are less flexible and don’t present the social microcosm we get in the U.K. and Australian versions. Yet even most of the purported “civilians” are cast from within a similar range of telegenic, aspiring-influencer types, trying to pull off the preconceived aggressive reality style of the TV veterans. They just fail at it and end up mostly getting edited out.

The British show certainly features far fewer stereotypical hunks and babes. While the U.S. version is impeccably diverse racially, the U.K.’s also embraces everyone from kids barely in their 20s up to a grandmother in her 70s, and contestants from a much wider spectrum of class and regional backgrounds, as well as a little person and a middle-aged mother who lost a hand in a car crash when she was young. (Mainstream British television in general is far ahead of its U.S. counterparts in incorporating disabled people.)

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Naturally, the Brit Traitors’ emulation of democracy, like the real thing, is far from perfect. Most Traitors versions include majority votes marked by unconscious racism and other prejudices. But the international iterations all have a more fluid sense of inclusion than the plastic-surgery-stiffened aesthetic conservatism of the U.S. reality-entertainment complex. The initial Australian cast of randos is probably the most American-like in their weakness for brash peacocking, but the swerves of their game soon annihilate any advantage the loudmouthed pinstriped lawyer thinks he has over the soft-spoken grocery clerk. In fact, once the worst offenders are cleared out, the Aussies somehow collectively achieve a strategic caliber beyond any of the other casts. Their guesses are still mostly wrong, to be sure, but at least their rationales aren’t always so bananas.

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American reality TV was exciting once. I recall how startling and chaotic the first couple of seasons of Survivor felt at the turn of the century, until the casts rapidly got more nakedly ambitious and hyperaware, running meta variations on previous seasons, as appearing on reality TV became a more formulaic career path. The Mole is often mentioned as a precedent for some aspects of The Traitors, so I went back this month to watch the first American season, hosted by Anderson Cooper in 2001, and found that it had that accessibly baggy feel too, which last year’s middling Netflix reboot conspicuously lacks. I’m not sure how you protect a reality format from crawling up its own ass, but it’s not, as Peacock did with The Traitors, by running headlong toward the genre’s own clichés.

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Not that it’s impossible to do well with public figures. In fact, all the contestants on the original De Verraders are apparently famous in the Netherlands, but not from other reality shows. Instead, they include an opera singer, a pop star, a soccer coach, a hockey player, a science journalist, and a fashion model who turns out to be one of the season’s sharpest contenders. As an ensemble, they radiate a relaxed sophistication in front of the camera, but within the game they remain frustrated and befuddled amateurs. That mixture was perhaps the most thoroughly beguiling of all.

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As in pretty much any improvisational art form, however, voyeuristically observing the truth-distortion field of any Traitors version is no substitute for experiencing it firsthand, as I remember it from those parlor games a dozen-plus years ago. I’m not certain these shows have the same attraction if you’ve never stood before a crowd of people whose respect and affection you long for and felt forced to swear falsely that you are not a criminal, a monster, a Nazi, or some other undeserving impostor. But then again, if you’ve ever had friends, colleagues, lovers, a family … really, who hasn’t?

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