Can you provide three adjectives to describe yourself?” Claudia Winkleman, comfortably situated in a luxurious Hollywood version of a posh Highlands sitting room (complete with a crackling fire, plaid wallpaper, and a stack of shiny gold coins), is evaluating the potential of a fresh group of participants on the second season of The Traitors. And Paul, a 36-year-old business manager wearing a blue work jacket, isn’t taking any risks. “Competitive, ruthless, and…” – his smirk finally breaks into a wide grin – “a traitor!” Winkleman lets out an excited gasp – just like you will if you’re one of the millions who have already fallen in love with this exceptional TV show. It has single-handedly breathed new life into the increasingly jaded and exhausted reality genre.
A group of 22 strangers gather in a luxurious castle in Scotland, organized by Winkleman. Three of them are secretly chosen as “traitors” by Winkleman. During the day, the group competes in physical and mental challenges for a cash prize, while at night the traitors eliminate one of the other players known as “the faithful”. The faithful try to identify and eliminate the traitors during nightly discussions, often based on flimsy evidence. The true identity of the accused is then revealed. If any traitors make it to the final round, they will claim the entire prize, leaving the faithful with nothing.
The Traitors’ first season was a huge success, mainly due to word-of-mouth recommendations. One of the contributing factors was the low expectations for a new show, which allowed the contestants to fully immerse themselves in the game without treating it as a means to secure brand deals. Maintaining the same atmosphere will be crucial for the second season’s success. The producers will need to find a balance of charisma and variety in the cast, as seen with the previous standout Wilf who was both likable and deceitful on screen. The current cast seems promising with a diverse mix of ages, personalities, and backgrounds, but only time will tell if they can come together as a cohesive group.
Surprisingly, this was not how the format was originally designed. The first season of the Dutch series, De Verraders, featured only celebrities and media personalities as contestants. While the first UK version did include a few candidates from the entertainment industry – comedian Hannah Byczkowski and actor Maddy Smedley – this time around, there are no such individuals. (The US version has taken a different approach, casting only well-known reality stars and former politician John Bercow.)
Choosing an entirely civilian cast is a wise decision. Many shows focus on maintaining a cycle of reality stars turned minor celebrities, but our show Traitors offers a refreshing take on the sociological experiments of early 00s reality TV, such as Big Brother (which, as scholars may know, was also invented by the Dutch). Instead of aiming for dramatic outbursts, the goal is to gamify everyday behaviors like building loyalty, creating common enemies, and deflecting suspicion and judgment. While the setting may seem exaggerated, the content is nuanced. Watching the traitors closely as they interact and searching for small mistakes in their casual conversations is an exhilarating experience for both knowledgeable viewers and novice game-players.
Despite its focus on deceit, dishonesty, and manipulation, The Traitors is a much less cynical representation of the repulsive reality programming that inundates us today (specifically, Nigel Farage’s desire to eat camel udder pizza in order to gain more airtime on I’m a Celebrity). However, this does not mean that it is any less captivating than the most ethically questionable shows. In their first late-night meeting, the three traitors are tasked with selecting a final accomplice from the loyal group, but the audience is kept in the dark about their identity. The resulting suspense is expertly crafted, and when the episode abruptly ends just as the fourth traitor is about to reveal themselves, I can’t help but let out a frustrated cry. This adds to the collection of peculiar sounds – from Winkleman’s gasp to the noise of thousands of gleeful hands rubbing together – that signal the arrival of a new addition to the list of truly outstanding reality TV.