The Traitors (BBC One) is the Highlands Hunger Games. It is terrible – a pandering to our basest, most voyeuristic, atavistic instincts, an exercise in exquisite cruelty lasting 12 weeks. You’re going to love it.
Like all the best tortures, the set-up is simple. Twenty-two people are taken to an isolated spot – a huge castle in the wilds of Scotland – to complete a series of tasks together that will increase the prize money (up to a possible £120,000), which will be split among the winners. Fine! Dandy, you might even think! Except that three of the contestants are secretly designated – by host Claudia Winkleman – “traitors”. They get to “murder” one person a night to reduce the competition. The group can eliminate one person a day. They must try to identify the traitors and get them out because if a traitor survives to become one of the prizewinners, he or she will walk away with the whole sum. Thus are the seeds of discord sown with a lavish hand.
Somehow, I’ve made it sound complicated. It really isn’t. Not least because the rules are, in a sense, immaterial – all you really need to know is that the game has been ruthlessly designed to set individual against individual, exploit every inch of humanity’s capacity for suspicion, dissembling, paranoia, guilt, sociopathy and every other unpleasantness you can think of. The knowledge that there are three traitors in their midst is like a poison creeping through the group. But as it works on them, they must come together to do the tasks as a unified whole to maximise their profit. If the makers had had the balls, they would have called it Headfuck.
The participants in this evilly addictive venture are – in a masterstroke of casting – very, very normal. Although in many ways it is a mixture of The Apprentice and Big Brother, The Traitors has managed to avoid the attention-seeking desperadoes, poseurs and chaos demons that habitually infest reality TV and given us the more terrifying spectacle of ordinary people coming undone instead.
There is 54-year-old “glam-ma” Amanda from Swansea. There is hearty Andrea (72, retired), young blond Alex and young red-haired Tom who are secretly a couple, 25-year-old wholesome BMX athlete Aaron who fancies Alex “more than anything in the world!”, slightly robotic PhD holder Imran, 49-year-old John (Scottish spa therapist) and many others.
As ever at the start of such shows, the number of people to keep track of is slightly overwhelming. Twenty-two is a lot of competitors. But Winkleman – in a series of tweed suits at least as fabulous as any of her Strictly outfits – is a pro and marshals them with aplomb. She’s an inspired choice for the job in other ways, too. The requirement to stay detached and deliver awful news or instructions, to be the spectre at the feast, is balanced by her natural warmth and the sense of her fibrillating desire to help only barely being constrained. Without that, the show would tip over into irredeemably bleak hellscape. Even faster.
The three traitors are designated and meet at night to discuss who their first victim should be. This requires thinking at least five steps ahead, and you can only marvel at what the human mind can do when the prospect of £120,000 lies in front of it. One traitor gleefully volunteers to sign the death warrant, while another shakes at the magnitude of what has been done.
Thus one person is missing at next morning’s breakfast table and the first hairline cracks begin to appear in individuals’ and the collective psyche.
Reviewers have signed a blood oath not to reveal any of the murders or banishment results in the three episodes we’ve been permitted to see. So I will just say: hmm, fair enough; OMG – really?! Have a good goddamn look at yourselves, people; you have GOT to be kidding me; and, if you hurt that sweet boy I am coming for you, oh, OK, I see it but really, this is not the way to be going about things and – oh, what?! THAT’S a new colour on you! God, I hope you’re next, I really do.
Check back with me in a month and see if you agree.