You will not be betrayed by 'The Traitors'
The new Peacock competition series The Traitors, all 10 episodes of which are now streaming, is goofy, hyperdramatic, suspenseful and pretty entertaining.
The basic structure is this: 20 contestants are sequestered in a castle. Three of them are designated by the show as traitors. Viewers know which three, and the three are aware of each other and meet privately, but their identities are a secret to the rest of the group. Each round, there are two eliminations. One comes when the traitors choose someone to "murder," which they do by slipping a note under their door. The other comes when the entire group sits around a table and votes somebody out (everybody votes, traitors included).
Everyone obviously denies being a traitor; everyone claims to be what they call "a faithful." The objective of the faithfuls is to identify and vote out ("banish") all of the people who are secretly traitors. The objective of the traitors is to make it all the way through the rounds of banishment and still be standing at the end. There is a pot of money, and if all the traitors have been banished when the game ends, the remaining faithfuls split the money. If there are any traitors left, the traitors split the money. (The very-very-endgame isn't revealed until it's upon them, so don't worry that it's not clear how this will actually conclude.)
There are some parallels with the long-running (on and off) show The Mole, in that there are betrayers among the group, but there are also a couple of key differences. One is that viewers are in on it the whole time, so they get to see the traitors maneuvering and trying to avoid being found out — and, of course, to banish people other than themselves, especially ones who might be onto them. (Speaking for myself, I greatly prefer it this way.) The other is that the traitors don't have any incentive to sabotage the group when the group is winning the "missions" that build up the prize pot. On the one hand, this makes the missions feel pretty feel-good, because it's just a group of people trying to accomplish a common task (like completing puzzles or games together), but on the other hand ... what's wrong with that?
There are two other things to know about Peacock's version of The Traitors. One is that this version has chosen to stack its cast with one-half regular players (let's say, civilians) and one-half reality-show veterans. A couple from Survivor, a couple from Big Brother, a former Bachelor, people from Real Housewives and Summer House, a former chief stew from Below Deck, and even Ryan Lochte, Olympic swimmer turned ... whatever he is now.
The other is that the host is Alan Cumming, whose relishing of every single word he utters, especially "traitors" and "murder," elevates the entire thing to a high level of ridiculous good fun. Parading around in a series of plaids, capes, hats, bright colors and whatever else is festive, he is invested. Like, invested. You could feed a lion a gazelle, a large pepperoni pizza, and an ice-cream sandwich, and you would not see that lion make a meal out of it the way Alan Cumming makes a meal out of hosting this show.
It turns out to be a surprisingly well designed competition. My assumption with most competitive shows is that while people are playing to the cameras (obviously including those who are veterans of playing to the cameras), they do actually want to win. That means people really are trying to figure out who among them might be the traitors, and the traitors really are trying to escape detection. The best part is that when someone is banished, they immediately go to the "Circle of Truth" and tell the group whether they were a traitor or a faithful. So obviously, if the person announces they were a faithful the whole time (and has been protesting that they were), the faithfuls feel foolish for voting them out. And if they were a traitor, there is much rejoicing. Rarely does voting someone off a show have such an instant payoff, where the evictee gets to announce whether their own removal was folly.
To appreciate what the show is doing right, it helps to distinguish between shows that are silly on one hand and shows that are stupid on the other. In this case, by "silly," I mean shows that have a self-aware, intentional, winking sense of how overwrought they are; they are openly in on the joke. By "stupid," I mean shows that don't really show any skill, any wit, or any strategy on the part of anyone involved. Some shows are silly and stupid (Real Housewives), some are neither silly nor stupid (Top Chef), some are stupid but not silly (The Bachelor), and some, like this one, are silly but not stupid. Alan Cumming is very silly, the ideas of the "Circle of Truth" and "banishment" and "muurrrrrrrder" are very silly — but you can also actually see people trying to figure out how they can best position themselves to win.
And while some of the reality show veterans they brought back are certainly people I never hoped to see again (particularly Rachel Reilly of Big Brother and The Amazing Race), lots of them are either affable enough or entertaining enough to make good company, and Cirie Fields, a multi-season Survivor competitor, is a favorite of mine. When you put a solid cast together with a very entertaining and over-the-top sense of atmosphere, the perfect host, and a nice, juicy game design, you end up with a highly watchable — and highly binge-able — show.
This piece first appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.
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