Back-stabbing, lying and Claudia Winkleman: how shows like The Traitors make for explosive TV

From the paranoia caused by Matt Hancock on I’m A Celeb to the utterly jaw-dropping scenes in Netflix’s The Mole, double agents on reality TV are must-see viewing

Moles, it seems, are having a moment. A clutch of recent reality shows are putting double agents front and centre, from Matt Hancock utilising his dodgy politician’s toolkit as the “undercover mole” of I’m a Celebrity to two surprisingly similar series: Netflix’s The Mole and BBC One’s latest gameshow, The Traitors.

In the latter, 22 strangers are confined to a remote Scottish castle. Among them is a secret group of “Traitors” who will try to avoid detection while “murdering” one contestant every night. The rest of the group – the “Faithfuls” – have to work out who the Traitors are before they become victims themselves. But if just one of the Traitors makes it to the finish line, their side wins the whole big-money prize. “Expect trickery, betrayal and backstabbing,” host Claudia Winkleman promised of the show in advance – and the creepy scenes in which cloaked and hooded Traitors plan their assassinations certainly deliver.

The concept will be familiar to viewers of The Mole on Netflix, which is itself a reboot of an ABC reality competition that aired in the US from 2001 to 2008. In the new version, a secretly appointed mole wreaks havoc among a group of 12 players as they attempt to complete group assignments and win money for a prize pot of up to $1m. After each mission, contestants must answer 20 questions about who they think the saboteur is – and the worst guesser is sent packing. At a time when many reality shows feel scripted and predictable, The Mole is compelling stuff, full of red herrings and misdirection. Contestants and viewers alike will spend entire episodes pointing the finger at one player, only to realise they aren’t the mole – they simply have a shady disposition or were just terrible at the task at hand.

A traitor in a reality show’s midst really shakes things up – it can get very dog-eat-dog, very fast. For the audience, the effect can be even greater if they aren’t in on the secret – as viewers of The Mole got to see the double agent’s unmasking in the finale, it was a jaw-dropping TV moment. Watching the realisation spread across the contestants’ faces at the same time as the penny dropped for us was doubly exhilarating.

Jaw-dropping moments … The Mole on Netflix
Jaw-dropping moments … The Mole on Netflix Photograph: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

There is nothing like seeing the walls close in on contestants as if they’re in George Orwell’s 1984 – or, indeed, the Big Brother house. In the 2005 series, producers scrawled “There is a mole in the house” in lipstick on a mirror and sent the house into turmoil. The message fuelled contestant Kemal Shahin’s theory that Makosi Musambasi was working with the producers. Meanwhile, Jayne Kitt was accused by housemates the following year, after her poor performance in a task led to speculation that she was a saboteur.

That was four years before Big Brother introduced its first official “mole” contestant in 2010 (Mario, who ended up coming third). But the seeds of doubt had been sown, and the accusation remained a staple throughout later series. Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci sent tongues wagging and allegations flying in Celebrity Big Brother US when he left the show early, and Big Brother 12’s Becky Hannon was similarly wrongly accused.

The Traitors hinges on this kind of paranoia, with eye-popping results. It’s been a strong start to the series, from its eclectic mix of contestants – an estate agent, a BMX rider, an ex-cop – to the theatrics and melodrama around the choice of “traitors”. It has echoes of Freemasonry, with its clandestine ceremonies, hooded robes and sworn oaths taken by players under moonlight. Unlike The Mole, the audience knows who the double agents are. We can see the back-stabbing, lying and cheating in real time, rather than retrospectively diagnosing players as sociopaths.

While it can feel a bit silly at times, ultimately it works. The savage expulsion of two contestants within the first 15 minutes of the opening episode set the tone of the show – it seems we should expect plot twist after plot twist, and the atmosphere to become increasingly acrimonious. I have no doubt we will be seeing more of the mole-based TV trend – something I happily welcome.

Contributor

Yomi Adegoke

The GuardianTramp

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