In her review of the hottest and most watchable reality TV show to hit British screens in years, Lucy Mangan in The Guardian says that “the participants in this evilly addictive venture are – in a masterstroke of casting – very, very normal.”
Perhaps Lucy was handed a set of preview recordings with a completely different cast of participants upon which to base this assessment of The Traitors, or, more likely, what we’ve all collectively come to accept as ‘normal’ behaviour on screen has been contorted beyond recognition since Big Brother appeared on screen 22 years ago. Quite possibly the only contestant in Channel 4’s original BB series that would have slotted right into this troupe of ‘normals’ would have been Nasty Nick Bateman, who would have made a fine traitor, bagged the cash and skipped off, muttering “one door closes, another window opens,” and other bastardisations of well-known phrases.
The BBC’s version of The Traitors, made by Studio Lambert Scotland, is a port of the Dutch psychological adventure format of the same name, which first aired in 2021, created by Marc Pos, developed by All3Media’s IDTV & RTL Creative Unit and produced by IDTV. Many other countries have also ordered the show. Some stack it full of celebrities. Others, like the BBC’s, cast ‘very, very normal’ people.
Like Bateman, who once horrified viewers, there is nothing acceptably normal about any of the people spending a couple of weeks in a Scottish castle fucking each other over in order to take home over 100k. From a strange amount of estate agents, a magician with zero ability to read anyone else in the room (including his girlfriend), a care worker/actor, an inarticulate trainee lawyer, a cheerleading coach from Leeds and an ex-police officer turned entrepreneur from Hull, to the youngest man to ever acquire a PhD in the entire universe, the cast are a 12 episode lesson in personality disorders.
Mangan is right, however, in that this collection of folk is a masterstroke of casting. Host Claudia Winkleman and her signature fringe, which one always suspected was designed for evil wrongdoings, is also the right side of unsettling – she’s at her most comfortable making other people feel otherwise, whether they’re hurling unfounded accusations at each other across a round table in order to boot someone off the show, falling off a bridge or pushing a big barrel of whisky up a hill. The contestants are very good at the challenges, which are all a bit shit and add more funds to the prize pot they’re all desperate to win, or provide the chance to head to ‘the armoury’ to pick up a golden shield that protects them from being murdered (don’t panic, nobody is actually killed on screen) by the traitors, charged with the stressful task of signing death warrants with a biro.
The Traitors simply wouldn’t work with ‘normal’ people – who would have been led by a morally and ethically wise elder back up the impressive road that leads to the castle and fucked off home after episode one. No, Winkleman and the 22 chosen contestants are perfectly imperfect and made for each other.
It is also, as Mangan says, an addictive spectacle. As were gloriously violent gladiatorial games in ancient Rome – a free to attend popular form of public entertainment available to a wide population that normalised cruelty. In the 21st century, the Coliseum has been replaced with the smart, 4k+ TV, or that laptop you’re reading this on in bed.
Or maybe it’s just brilliant contemporary entertainment, another incremental step in the evolution of reality shows that will, ultimately, lead towards a real life version of Squid Games. That’ll look good in hi-def, eh?
The Traitors is insanely watchable, often painfully tense, frustrating, cringe-inducing, creepy viewing. It will leave many viewers shouting at the screen, as individuals go for the wrong participants, based on the sketchiest of ‘evidence’. In the early stages, with more participants around the table, the suspicion turns into bullying. While contestants are all pitted against each other, the audience too will have a vacillating experience, siding with the traitors – who didn’t choose to be so – and the faithfuls, and back again.
Almost everyone that leaves tells the others that they’ve met some of the most wonderful people they’ve ever met, bursts into tears and pledges to stay in touch. Which is a nice contrast to the extraordinary levels of hatred that are expressed at people that barely anyone knows. At no point has anyone appeared to have done the maths that makes discovering the traitors statistically difficult. More than anything else The Traitors is a morality lesson in herd mentality and groupthink. It is, quite possibly, the most relevant programme to be made about contemporary humanity as we all rush headlong towards hell in a handcart, pushing every other fucker out of the way in a final fit of selfishness.
It is also brilliant television, as television today goes, when the options are not quite but almost limited to other reality shows, game shows hosted by Richard Osman and/or Jimmy Carr, whatever sitcom Ricky Gervais has made for Netflix and crime and police procedural dramas.
The Traitors is simultaneously the worst of games and the best of games. The people at play are in no way ‘normal’ – maybe nobody is, these days.
The Traitors can be watched on the BBC’s iplayer at https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/p0db9b2t/the-traitors