If your long-awaited travel plans ever suddenly get canceled, as mine did a few weeks ago thanks to our annual holiday COVID surge, I recommend consoling yourself with the virtual vacation that is The Traitors. Set in a picturesque Scottish castle and hosted by Alan Cumming—whose bright, plaid ensembles can only be described as Highlands glam—the Peacock reality competition became a cult hit when it debuted last winter. Now I know why. Confined to my couch, I devoured not just the American Traitors, but also the British and Australian versions. And I came away wishing the stateside incarnation, whose second season premieres on Jan 12., would take some lessons from its superior overseas counterparts.
Every version of the show combines the mechanics of the party game Mafia with the aesthetics of a retro cozy mystery, as around 20 contestants vie for a cash prize of up to $250,000. Team “missions” that range from brain teasers to athletic challenges to scavenger hunts allow cast members to build up the prize pot. But a few of them have secretly been tapped as traitors, who have the power to collectively “murder” one adversary each night in an attempt to eliminate the competition and steal the money for themselves. Their targets, a.k.a. “faithfuls,” can fight back at daily roundtables where the full cast votes off suspected traitors. The thing is, only the traitors know for sure who the faithfuls are. For everyone else, each person is a mystery to solve.
Maybe this doesn’t sound so remarkable on paper. Challenges, secrets, elimination votes—these have been the foundational elements of reality competitions since Survivor popularized the format at the dawn of the 21st century. By the mid-2000s, it seemed like every hit show, from Big Brother and The Apprentice to Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, was a serialized contest edited to give viewers heroes to root for and villains to boo. Even the search for true love was transformed into an extended pageant. While networks keep churning out new titles, like Fox’s goofy American Idol variation The Masked Singer, the last genuinely notable reality competition to premiere was probably RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009.
The Traitors doesn’t have the same potential to change the culture as Drag Race. It’s just a shrewdly designed, consistently entertaining, wickedly suspenseful game that errs toward neither the saccharine group hug of The Great British Bake Off nor the vitriol for which reality TV is known. The substantial cash prize encourages real competition. Faithfuls must discern who they can trust and make sure that trust is reciprocated. Traitors have ample opportunities to betray even one another, thus increasing their own share of the potential winnings.
In this genre, informal mind games are always more fascinating to observe than official tests of strength, speed, or smarts. But in this case—unlike on Love Is Blind, for example, where staying loyal to the wrong person can get a besotted cast member left at the altar—they also appear to be mostly lighthearted fun for the people playing them. Since lying is baked into The Traitors’ premise, it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) come as an especially cruel surprise when someone a player chooses to trust turns around and metaphorically knifes them. The traitors are contestants picked to act out the role of villain, rather than nasty people or victims of prejudicial editing.
Each edition has something unique going for it. The Australian version, whose less-exciting setting is a historic hotel, could use more judicious editing; viewers barely get to know some contestants who make it into the final few rounds. But it has perhaps the twistiest, most strategic gameplay of the three shows. In its first season, The Traitors UK had the most engaging relationship dynamics and contestant banter. Cumming is by far the best host of the bunch, keeping the experience on-brand with his ensembles and his Scottish brogue and an arch camp sensibility that sets him apart from the genre’s standard, blandly perky spokesmodel types.
Yet the American Traitors is operating at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to casting. While the other two series recruit regular, un-famous people—office workers, educators, tradespeople, retail employees—the U.S. version is increasingly reliant on familiar faces. Season 1 split the field between reality TV newcomers and veterans of shows like Survivor, Big Brother, and the Real Housewives universe. Season 2 doubles down on the established reality stars, eliminating amateurs entirely. (Other minor celebrities thrown into the mix include boxer Deontay Wilder, Michael Jordan’s son Marcus Jordan, and, in the season’s strangest casting choice, former British MP John Bercow.) Love Island, Drag Race, and plenty of Bravo docusoaps are represented. Two cast members, Chris “C.T.” Tamburello and Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio, are longtime rivals from MTV’s The Challenge, while another pair, Parvati Shallow and Sandra Diaz-Twine, have beef dating back to Survivor’s 2010 Heroes vs. Villains season.
I can understand why the producers might have stacked the debut season’s cast with famous names, to draw in existing fans (or hatewatchers). But the show’s initial success should have convinced them to drop that crutch, not lean harder on it, in Season 2. The problem isn’t just that reality lifers are slick, media-savvy performers, always polishing their personal brands in pursuit of the next booking. It’s that they’re known quantities. If viewers know them by reputation, then so do even the castmates they’ve never met before. (Johnny Bananas comes to Traitors fresh off a tongue-in-cheek E! competition called House of Villains, which convened some of the most notorious characters in reality TV history.) Everyone comes in with preconceived notions about who’s intelligent, who’s athletic, who’s honest, who’s a snake. Some of the season’s early eliminations reflect impressions made long before players checked in to the castle.
Compare those foregone conclusions to some of the imported series’ most compelling cast members. Among Traitors Australia’s initial crop of traitors was Nigel Brennan, a photojournalist who became a hostage negotiator after surviving 462 days as a kidnapping victim in Somalia; he wisely decided against tipping off the group to his extremely relevant skill set. The Traitors UK featured a couple who pretended they didn’t already know each other in order to prevent their castmates from sniffing out their alliance. Even among players who don’t misrepresent themselves, the show’s strategy is purer and its intrigue more, well, intriguing when everyone is a stranger to everyone else. The social elements feel less performative, too. By the end of the British edition’s first season, finalists from very different walks of life had forged close bonds.
This is not to say that the second season of our homegrown Traitors isn’t worth watching. The format and host are solid enough to hold up against weak casting decisions (although I pray that no American politician ever arrives to impose partisanship on one of the few nice things we still have). I just hope that by the time Season 3 rolls around, the producers realize how much better the show could be if it looked beyond overexposed personalities from inferior reality series past.
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