100% ruthless: why the nasty US Traitors ruins the reality show

It’s full of reality TV stars, packed with mean competitiveness and has none of the charming sincerity of the UK version. Hopefully it’s not a warning sign for series two …

There are plenty of reasons to watch the US version of The Traitors, now that the whole thing is on iPlayer. If you were one of the many viewers gripped by the UK Traitors’ blend of intrigue, betrayal and school sports day, then this is a decent substitute until the inevitable British second series arrives. It is fascinating to see how the same game – essentially, who is good at lying? – can be played in such a different way, depending on who’s involved.

Best of all, Alan Cumming hosts. I love Claudia Winkleman, but Cumming presents as if he is a supply teacher sent to look after an unruly classroom that he can’t be bothered to discipline. He adds accessories scene by scene. He can start an episode wearing a kilt and a blazer, and by the end have put on a shawl, a brooch, glasses and a beret. He archly quotes and misquotes Shakespeare. The man has come up with 300 different ways of pronouncing the word “dollars”. He is evidently having a ball.

Alan Cumming in wing chair in dark velvet smoking-jacket and slippers, bright yellow beret and yellow socks
Having a ball … Alan Cumming. Photograph: Euan Cherry/BBC/Studio Lambert & All3Media International

Enjoyable as it is, though, the US Traitors is not a patch on the British one. Its slight differences and adjustments are to its detriment, though obviously what works in the UK may not translate well for viewers across the pond. American reality TV is so different to what British viewers are used to that it might as well be another genre entirely. It is meaner, more dramatic and far more competitive. American contestants usually walk into any given reality show with an air of ruthlessness. They are not there to make friends. They’re going to play the game and manipulate their way to the top. Brits tend to turn up as if they had planned to go to Tesco that morning but have ended up in a TV studio doing challenges instead. Americans will cut you down. Brits are modestly befuddled to be involved at all and default to seeing it as either a laugh, or as an opportunity to try something new, or both.

The main difference here, besides a couple of new or tweaked tasks, is the approach to the contestants. The US Traitors has cast a mix of reality TV veterans, from shows such as Survivor and US Big Brother (which I’ve never seen, but from the way they talk about it, sounds far more like a Traitors-esque game than a load of people sitting around writing shopping lists and bickering because they’re bored), and what it refers to as “civilians”, ie non-famous people. It sets up a weird dynamic from the off, in which the reality stars, who are fluent in television and know how to put on a show, completely dominate as characters. It also makes it less convincing: Kate from superyacht crew reality show Below Deck, for example, appears to have been dropped in solely to cook up drama, rather than to actually play the game.

The American contestants clap and cheer outside the castle.
Playing to win … the American contestants. Photograph: Euan Cherry/BBC/Studio Lambert & All3Media International

It is a testament to the British Traitors that I now care about things like the integrity of the game. There are players involved in the US Traitors who don’t care if they win or lose, and it spoils it a little. Partly this is an issue of economics. The prize money clearly meant a lot to the UK contestants, who variously wanted to use it as a deposit for their mum’s house, to help buy a new prosthetic hand, or to set up a space for underprivileged youth. The already-famous (I use this term lightly) US contestants don’t seem to need the doooolarghs, as Cumming might put it. They just act as if they’re supposed to want them.

The sincerity that made the British version so compelling is absent. The cast are mostly people of the same sort of age. They whine about the tasks rather than being delighted to try something new. It feels more produced, and more designed to create moments. I’m not naive to the fact that this is how reality TV works, but the did-you-see-that bits from the UK series sound laughably low-key in comparison. A man boasted about how well he could read people, then immediately wrecked his chances of winning by failing to read literally everyone, including his own girlfriend? Beautiful. But two women deciding they hate each other and publicly insulting each other’s clothing is not subtle. Nor is someone dropping a note with a list of names on it that is then discovered and causes drama. We had Nasty Nick 23 years ago.

Also, why are the US contestants supposedly staying in the castle, while the UK ones got shipped off set at the end of the day? Why does one US contestant say “top of the morning to you” when they are in Scotland? Why don’t the Americans have any sensible outdoor clothing? Why can nobody, in either series, spell anybody else’s name?

The Traitors US is fun, brash and well designed. It hits its dramatic high notes with Mariah Carey-esque precision. Obviously I got involved enough to spend more time than is sensible forming firm opinions about its strengths and weaknesses. But I also worry that it might offer a portent of what a second series of the British Traitors, in which people know what they’re getting into, could look like. Will it lose some of its spark? I hope not. I’m a faithful, and I’d like to stay that way, 100%.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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