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O Come All Ye Traitors
On my latest reality TV obsession and how franchising across the Atlantic can go wrong.
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Over Christmas, I got really into BBCOne’s The Traitors because Hettie told me to watch it. Whatever Hettie tells me to watch, I watch.
I was intrigued by the general premise of the show, it’s like a high-stakes version of Mafia or Werewolf. Imagine being in drama class and you could win the teacher’s salary if you figure out who the killer is! It’s sort of like that. Three contestants are selected by the host to be Traitors who murder the remaining contestants, the Faithful, every night.
We meet the contestants on a Hogwarts Express-esque, Murder on the Orient Express-like steam engine that takes them to a Scottish castle where Claudia Winkleman and her bangs are waiting for them. The contestants come from all walks of life, everyone from retirees to magicians; everyday civilians over villa-ready Instagram models. As an aesthetic choice, it feels perfect for this show. The Traitors are dressed in robes and carry lamps into a dark tunnel to scheme in the night, the challenges utilize the Scottish Highlands and surrounding fixtures like churches or rope bridges, they ‘banish’ alleged traitors at a round table that would make King Arthur shake in his boots. Aestheticizing this kind of Britishness really works for the show, those Dark Academia kids on TikTok would have a ball with The Traitors.
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What really drew me in was the fact that not only did the Faithful have to root out the Traitors to win the prize money—if even one Traitor makes it to the end, they take all the money—but the contestants have to earn their prize money by completing a series of challenges.
In the UK version, they can win up to £120,000. Emphasis on up to. If they don’t complete the challenge, they don’t win the money. This just got me thinking about how reality TV cash prizes haven’t been adjusted for inflation. £120,000 is a lot of money. Splitting in three to four ways with other contestants is still a lot of money. On Love Island, the winning couple splits £50,000 between them. It’s a finite amount that could do a lot of good for a lot of people, but with the way economies all over the world are teetering over the edge, it seems wild that such a large amount could feel like they’re worth so little. A winning Love Island contestant could win a fresh graduate’s annual starting salary, which isn’t enough to sustain you in London.
I love that in the short amount of time the cast spend with each other, they’ve formed really strong bonds, attachments, and rivalries that led to their melodramatic reactions and heightened emotions surrounding their relationships. Their suspicions and betrayal of each other are so entertaining. I think British casting directors have a real knack for finding the right combination of personalities to make fabricated drama watchable. Even if it was stupid that Matt Hancock was on I’m A Celeb, people tuned in for that very reason, and to see how he’d fare against the bigger personalities they cast last year.
My personal favourite is Amanda from Swansea, an unassuming estate agent that becomes the mother of all Traitors. Amanda was an excellent Traitor. She’s played it the smartest and no one suspected her until she was thrown under the bus by another Traitor. Everything she said and did was iconic, and it’s only right that she’s doing a tour of the gay club circuit right now. It’s so perfect.
The UK version has a lot of twists and turns—two contestants that were culled in the beginning are brought back after a riddle-solving challenge set in the pews of a church during a staged memorial. At many points, Winkleman becomes genuinely invested in the game, like she really wants to be a part of it with them! She cracks a few jokes after a dramatic revelation at breakfast, and she’s cheering from the sidelines during all the challenges. She just wants to be included! There’s a certain camaraderie among the contestants that was a refreshing contrast to the intense dagger-throwing at their banishment roundtables.
This isn’t the case with The Traitors US.
I had said off-hand (probably to Hettie as well) that The Traitors probably wouldn’t work in The States, and even if it did it would probably be full of manufactured cattiness and a very American competitive edge that could turn ugly very quickly.
I was disappointed to discover that the US version was set in the exact same castle. I guess they really had to get their money’s worth! I was hoping for something rooted in Americana; a Gatsby-ish McMansion or a Floribama resort. Luckily, Alan Cumming hosts this version and he shows up to set every single day in high camp Scotsmanwear and a new way to pronounce the word ‘dollars’. Yes, in this version, obviously, they win dollars. And a whopping $250,000 dollars at that! That’s way more than they can win in England! I’m sure this was a production decision; what they could earn more of playing the challenges, the production saved in keeping the challenges the same as the British version. There were no contestants that left and came back, and they had a quirky little real-life Spot The Difference game inside the castle.
My biggest gripe with the US version was that the contestants were a mix of established reality TV stars and regular Americans. Obviously, this was to draw in an existing market to an unfamiliar new format, and sure, Kate from Below Deck had her entertaining moments, but it took away the charm of the UK version of the series. The Australian version also kept it to civilians, whilst the first season of the show’s original iteration, the Dutch’s De Verraders had a mix of noted Dutch actors and presenters in the mix.
The American version very quickly got into the drama. But already, I was exhausted by the drama in the first episode. There was also a clear divide between the reality stars and the regular people, at least until the numbers started to dwindle. 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte was a Faithful on this show that got murdered to throw suspicion off of a former Big Brother contestant. The cast on this incarnation of the show already had preconceived notions of who the more ‘famous’ contestants are and made judgments on their tactics and strategies (and often rightfully so) off the back of that. The second I saw Brandi from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, I knew what I was getting into.
The British contestants could withhold information about their identities—about their jobs (some were actors), about their relationships (one pair came in as a couple but chose to hide this fact), and the revelation of this information changes the dynamics within the castle. It was also fun to watch regular people with different motivations win the prize money. You already know people like Brandi and Ryan Lochte don’t need to compete for that prize money.
I think what fascinated me the most and ultimately made me watch The Traitors US to the end was how this version of the show was pretty emblematic of the death of the meritocracy amidst the myth of American exceptionalism. No matter who pulled their weight earning the money, you might not even get your hands on it because of forces at play as simple as who Alan Cumming tapped on the shoulder in the first episode. Spoilers ahead, but a Traitor that was a former Survivor contestant won the money. They played the game the way it was meant to be played, and I can’t really fault them for that. But after a former The Bachelor contestant/Traitor bowed out at the last second, there was a naive part of me that wanted the remaining Traitor to concede and let the Normal People win. Of course, that didn’t happen. The show needs to follow through on its premise.
The other contestants were gutted, but they kept their heads held high leaving the castle. It all felt underwhelming to watch.
I guess that goes back to ‘rooting for the little guy’ becoming more and more elusive in Hollywood. Or rather, how rooting for the underdog has such a cynicism or jaded detachment to it that the archetype just doesn’t pay off anymore. We always know The Avengers are going to win even if Thanos wipes half of them out because the movie tells us they’ll be back in the sequel. Good versus evil feels hollow. Even when evil wins, it becomes expected. That dichotomy has become such a bore.
I don’t know if The Traitors will get renewed on either side of the pond, but I hope they keep finding new ways to keep it fresh at every iteration. I hope I don’t see contestants from The Voice or a post-Late Show James Corden. I hope there’s a version of the show where two concurrent teams of Traitors and Faithfuls fight to defend Claudia Winkleman and Alan Cumming’s respective honours. Like America’s Next Top Model: British Invasion, but in a castle. I think a Canadian version should be set in a ski lodge or the apartment building Shawn Mendes allegedly lives in.
I think I’d fair pretty well as a Traitor. I make things up for a living, after all. How do you think you’d fare? Would you be a Traitor or a Faithful?
That’s all for this week!
All my love,