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The Traitors is exceptional reality TV, from host Alan Cumming to its game of intrigue

The Traitors is exceptional reality TV, from host Alan Cumming to its game of intrigue
The Traitors host Alan Cumming in front of the show's home, Ardross Castle in Scotland (Photo by Peacock)

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.

People applauding while standing in a group on a gravel driveway
Traitors players Michael Davidson, Anjelica Conti, Cirie Fields, Brandi Glanville, Rachel Reilly, Kate Chastain, Robert “Bam” Nieves, Ryan Lochte, Arie Luyendyk Jr., Christian de la Torre, Cody, Calafiore, Kyle Cook, Amanada Clark, Azra Valani, Stephenie LaGrossa Kendrick, Reza Farahan, Geraldine Moreno, and Quentin Jiles (Photo by Euan Cherry/Peacock)

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.

A massive wooden frame shaped like a humanoid with horns, on fire
The Traitors episode 1’s challenge ended with massive figures burning. (Photo by Euan Cherry/Peacock)

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.”

Alan Cumming, wearing a yellow beret and yellow socks, and a dark suit, sits in a study next to a chess board
The Traitors’ host Alan Cumming in one of his fabulous outfits (Photo by Euan Cherry/Peacock

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.

An overhead view of a circular table with a compass design, with people sitting around it
Alan Cumming (top and center) talks to the players during The Traitors first episode. From left to right: Shelbe Rodriguez, Anjelica Conti, Ryan Lochte, Robert “Bam Nieves”. Stephenie LaGrossa Kendrick, Kyle Cooke, Alan Cumming, Rachel Reilly, Quentin Jiles, Brandi Glanville, Cirie Fields, Amanda Clark, and Azra Valani (Photo by Peacock)

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.

The Traitors

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

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

Discussion: your turn

I think of writing about television as the start of a conversation, and I value your contributions to that conversation. We’ve created a community that connects people through open and thoughtful conversations about the TV we’re watching and the stories about it.

To share our perspectives and exchange ideas in a welcoming, supportive space, I’ve created these rules for commenting here. By commenting below, you confirm that you’ve read and agree to those rules.

Happy discussing!

Ann

Sunday 29th of January 2023

Ok, I have to ask has anyone seen anything about the production. The clothes, hair and makeup was wonderful for all the contestants.

Drew

Saturday 28th of January 2023

The only disappoiting thing in all of these versions is the lack of a reunion, it's really frustrating as I would love to see the reaction to the traitors' indentities from the people who went off before the finale. If they insist on non finale, maybe give some more airtime to the murdered person by having them meet the traitors, as in the traitors go to their rooms to 'kill them'. That would be so much fun to watch as the traitors not only reveal themselves but will also have to face their 'victim' face to face. Although now that I'm writing it, maybe this is too emotionally draining for the traitors.

Sarah Lewis

Thursday 19th of January 2023

Did you watch the reboot of The Mole that Netflix premiered last year? It's worth checking out if you like these types of shows. Unfortunately they also didn't do a reunion show. Shows like these with all the twists and turns definitely need a reunion show however it appears streaming networks (Peacock, Netflix) don't include it.

Patrick

Sunday 15th of January 2023

Definitely glad I watched, but overall I am still a bit puzzled by the format. Since there's no mission sabotaging, there's no way for Traitors to look...well...traitorous. The fact that one is a Traitor is just so arbitrary. During one of the Roundtables, a contestant pleads that she's not a Traitor, but is totally frazzled and has no way to prove that's she's not, and that's my central issue with the show. How could you even begin to determine who a Traitor was? It also makes the challenges completely pointless, at least from a viewer's standpoint.

The show has a lot going for it, but overall, it just doesn't make sense to me.

Brekkie

Tuesday 17th of January 2023

@Patrick - I suspect not running into issues with "copying" The Mole is why there is no sabotage to the tasks. At first it seemed off but actually it's quite refreshing most challenges involve the contestants having to work together for a common goal rather than compete. Even when split into two teams the incentive is for both teams to succeed.

I think too it is highlighted well later in the series how the Traitors are actually still betraying the Faithful in the challenges without sabotaging them as it is still to their advantage to build as big a pot as possible, but their goal is to build it for themselves, not the Faithful.

Scott Hardie

Monday 16th of January 2023

@Patrick, the show is a little too busy to get into this on screen (at least in the episodes I've watched so far), but I imagine that the missions also function as additional incentive to eliminate players. After all, if you're faithful and it's time to vote for elimination, you're not just considering who might be a traitor; you're also considering which weak competitors will keep the pot from growing, and which competitors play so well together that they might vote together to eliminate you.

JF

Monday 16th of January 2023

@Patrick, The challenges aren't completely pointless. They're working as a team in those to build a shared pot that either the faithfuls will split at the end or any remaining traitors will. They do exhibit skills during those missions that could provide a clue to their background.

While I agree with you that there could be more opportunities or even clues from the show itself as to who a traitor is, its all about those moments before/after challenges and the round table to interrogate each other.

Like Survivor, my guess is faithfuls will get better over time at strategies and interrogation. They may even use meta knowledge (like thinking about how things played out previously or what the producers might do). To counter some of this, the producers will likely develop new twists. And the truth is, if all traitors are eliminated, they can recruit a new one.

I would love to go on this show. I already know several things I would try to do if I was a faithful. And if I was a traitor, forget it. They'd be toast! LOL

JF

Sunday 15th of January 2023

Thank you for turning me on to this show. If it wasn't for you, I would've never known it existed.

I binged all of it in two days. It was so good!!!!!

A few comments that are spoiler free:

* Where the heck is the promotion for this show? You are literally the only coverage I've seen. I'm worried it won't get a second season because no one knows about it.

* The location of this show is such a critical piece. Everything looks so beautiful and the challenges are so well done in these locations that it really has an almost cinematic feel. Any other show that does challenges (Survivor, The Challenge) should be taking notes.

* Kate is reality TV gold. I've never watched the show she was on before, but on this show, she just brings it. I would cast her in anything honestly.

* My only slight criticism (beyond promotion) is that there is no reunion. With the awesome ending, it would've been great to get reactions from all the cast members. I mean, the show is about keeping secrets, so watching the reaction to secrets being revealed is literally the best part. Maybe they were waiting to see if it was a success or not, but I think it's a missed opportunity for sure. It left me wanting more (although I would watch season 2 immediately if it existed).