The Traitors is a rare thing in reality television: a competition show that arrives as close to perfectly formed as possible.
From its opening seconds, it confidently establishes its world and its personality, and all of it is enrapturing: a Scottish castle, Alan Cumming as host, a game of intrigue and suspicion afoot.
Peacock’s The Traitors, which is now streaming all 10 episodes, is delivering everything I’ve desperately missed since the first seasons of Anderson Cooper’s The Mole. Although the underlying games have some similarity, they’re not the same.
The Traitors is effectively an expansion of the party game Mafia. Three of the 20 players have been designated as Traitors by the producers; the others are known as the Faithful.
Each day they all compete together in a mission to earn money for the pot, followed by a banishment (an elimination by vote of all the players) and a murder (the Traitors secretly choosing one person to eliminate from the game).
The goal at the banishments is to get rid of a Traitor, because if all any Traitors remain at the end, they win the entire prize pot. If the Faithful purge all three Traitors, then the Faithful remaining all split the cash. (I’m not sure what would happen if the three Traitors all get voted out before the game ends.)
The Traitors challenges have stakes—money plus, in some challenges, immunity available to one player—even though the Traitors and Faithful alike are working to earn money together. They all want the pot to be as big as possible; while there may be screw-ups, there is no intentional sabotage.
That solves The Mole’s central problem. The Mole is effectively a crew member, paid by the production to sabotage tests and limit the money the group can earn. The Mole could sabotage every mission, but doesn’t need to, because other players have an incentive to sabotage to draw suspicion their way.
It is so much more satisfying to watch 20 people work together to complete a task, celebrating their victories or being frustrated by defeat. The missions are well-designed, varied, and compact.
Alan Cumming presides over these missions, the murders, and the banishments with all of with a character he describes in one episode as “a less butch Agatha Christie in a fabulous outfit.” While his persona is strong, he’s also a minimal presence, even during the banishments, just stepping back and letting the players converse.
Every line that he says through his ebullient Scottish brogue is poetry and mystery tangled together. “In this game, fair is foul and foul is fair, and the person sitting next to you may smile and smile and be a villain,” he tells the players.
Just watch him give a time call as he walks across graves, in which players are buried, wearing a blue beret and matching blue glasses, a tartan coat, and a yellow tie. “Hark. I hear the calvary approach,” he says, drolly. “Hurry players! There are literally people in a grave waiting for you.”
Filmed at Ardross Castle in the Scottish Highlands, The Traitors looks expensive just by virtue of its spectacular location. The production backs up that up. From diving drone shots and sweeping crane shots to shaky hand-held cameras, the cinematography captures action well, and the music supports the visuals, adding a sense of adventure and urgency.
When the Traitors gather to choose who to murder, they wear dark cloaks and carry lanterns while climbing stairs and navigating fire-lit passageways in the castle. It’s that kind of thought and attention to detail, and adherence to a clear theme, that elevates The Traitors above and beyond most other competition shows.
The Traitors is based upon De Verraders, a Dutch format has recently been adapted in the U.K. and Australia. I have not yet seen those, but I do know they are 1) beloved, and 2) cast with civilians, not celebrities or reality stars.
Peacock’s decision to fill half its cast with reality TV stars reads mostly as a clear sign of insecurity, of fear that no one will watch if there are no names attached.
While I’m always glad to see Cirie Fields competing again, having A-list reality TV competitors and personalities creates an imbalance, with a kind of overconfidence and ease from those who are familiar with being on reality TV sets and a sort of desperation and/or timidness from the others.
Mostly, I’m annoyed that some of the well-known players are just taking up space, though I will not name any names, such as Ryan Lochte. Thus, if I could make a reality TV wish, it’d be to see the excellent cast of Netflix’s The Mole play The Traitors.
We know who the Traitors are almost immediately, which allows us to see both sides of the game. While it does mean that we’re not surprised by the outcome of the banishments, seeing the players’ tension about who they just chose to banish is still thrilling.
The producers’ decision to choose the three Traitors they did is also fascinating, which I’ll discuss more in recaps that are to come.
After the breakfast murder reveal, and later before banishments, there are some whispered conversations, but the game is designed in a way to publicly expose feelings and votes.
The first roundtable has some specious accusations, but is instantly more tense and unpredictable than most Survivor Tribal Councils or Mole executions, and I think that’s because the deliberation is not private, and the votes are not secret. It’s just all out there, and Alan Cumming hovers but never steps in to ask questions or challenge a player.
The most curious choice is that, to keep suspense for viewers, the producers send groups of players into breakfast, so they discover, slowly, who’s survived the night. The Traitors’ non-murdered targets enter last, effectively revealing who else was in danger of elimination. In the third episode, some players explicitly call the last two to come to breakfast as those who were on the chopping block, which would, of course, immediately clear them as being Traitors. Will the producers adjust this strategy as the season progresses? Will the players use that information?
I’m sure there will be other questions and quibbles as I watch the rest of the season, but The Traitors had me a few seconds into its first episode, and only tightened its grip from there. This is outstanding competition reality TV, with all of the elements sliding confidently into place.
An intriguing strategic game with a perfect host, a confident personality, and outstanding production design. A
What works for me:
- The game and its structure
- The production’s design and personality
- Alan Cumming’s brilliant hosting
What could be better:
- Less insecurity in casting, or at least less dead weight