How much do I love The Traitors? One hundred per cent. It’s my 100%, I 100% believe in it, 100% I am a faithful (to this show and its many innovative uses of “100%”). The BBC has waited until the end of the year to slide out what is turning into one of its most exciting series in ages, and I’m not sure how many people could have seen it coming. Claudia Winkleman in a castle in the Highlands, presiding over a group of people playing what is essentially the party game Mafia over several days, with some I’m a Celebrity-style outdoor activities (minus the reputation laundering) to break up all the talking? On paper, it sounds perfectly fine if relatively tepid.
Cut to three weeks later and I am watching each episode with multiple text chats on the go, as if in charge of an air traffic control tower at Heathrow. This is masterly reality TV. For the uninitiated, most players are faithfuls. Some are chosen, by a secret tap on the shoulder from Claudia, as traitors. If the faithfuls manage to weed out all the traitors, they win the money (which they are all – traitors included – jointly earning through successfully completing their team-bonding activities). If one or all of the traitors manage to lie their way to the end of the competition by persuading everyone that they are faithfuls then they get the money. People can be banished as suspected traitors at the nightly round tables; the traitors can murder faithfuls overnight. It’s The White Lotus meets Big Brother 1.
It is wonderful. The drama is exquisite. Within hours, everyone has forgotten that they are playing a game built on the notion that at least one person, and probably more, will be lying through their teeth at every turn. “We’ve got to look at this like a game,” says one contestant, as if it’s a massive revelation with huge strategic insight, despite the fact that they are all participating in a TV show that only exists because it is a game.
There is so much crying. The emotions are raw. There is a lot of chat about honesty and not lying and how much they hate lying and what great friends they have all become and what a lovely, life-changing experience it is. Half of the programme is about fostering those bonds by making the participants work together to add to the prize pot. Then it whips away any camaraderie and asks them to turn on each other. They all sit around a table and try to decide, based on very little evidence, which one of them is a scheming fibber who has been betraying them all along and is only in it for the cash.
So far, the round tables have been much more brutal than the overnight “murders”, because the traitors at least put some thought into who they’re planning to bump off. The roundtable discussions have less logic and reason than a particularly gnarly episode of Question Time. It is a terrifying display of groupthink, and how quickly humans will act as a pack even if they have no intention of doing so. They usually choose a target based on instinct then retrofit the evidence to that target. Faithfuls have been hounded out for being a bit different, for talking too much, or for not talking at all. It is sickeningly enjoyable to watch a person being banished, not because they have to leave (actually, it can be grim to see how easily the tides turn) but because the banished person can then turn around and tell everyone how wrong they were. Yes! I was a faithful! And look what you’ve all done!
It feels like a revival of the early, more innocent days of reality TV. It isn’t about sexy young people trying to couple up; who knows if this will end with any romance, but I don’t think it’s very likely, unless we’re talking about the love-in between Claudia and her bulky knitwear. The cast is taken from a broad range of people, across different age groups, and they don’t appear to be primed for reality TV. They didn’t take part expecting to be stars, but to play a game (even if they forgot about the game part straight away).
That’s not to say there aren’t stars – without spoilers, there is one person who is playing spectacularly well and should ascend to the very top – but that it lacks the off-putting shininess of oven-ready celebrities. That might be why emotions are running so hot. There appears to be a genuine sense of shock at the twists and turns that are driving it. People make impetuous decisions then have to fend off the consequences. I am often very close to shouting at the screen: “Why would you tell them that?! Why can’t you see who is in front of your nose!?”
It seems retro, almost vintage, to have just three episodes a week. It makes it much more manageable than demanding that viewers commit to an episode a night plus spin-offs. Mind you, I probably would watch it seven nights a week. I’m 100% all in.