This review is spoiler-free.
Finding out there’s a new reality TV show format is like finding out there’s a new brand of cigarette on the market. They’re still making those things even though they kill people? The chemical rush obtained from watching estate agents make each other cry must be a powerful high to justify the death toll and spin-off media careers.
Dutch-Belgian original De Verraders doesn’t use estate agents, but celebrities. Professional sportspeople, actors, models and presenters compete for a prize fund in what’s billed as the ultimate game of suspicion and lies. Since 2021, the format has spread itself around the globe faster than a new Coronavirus variant. There are now versions in France, Norway, Spain, Belgium and Australia. There’s also one in Russia, where you’d think the word ‘traitor’ might not get bandied about quite as readily. Confusingly, the American version’s going to be called Susan’s The Traitors despite being hosted by Alan Cumming. Who is Susan and can we trust her? One mystery of many.
The British version is civilians-only (a few contestants describe themselves as actors but only in the way your daughter’s university boyfriend does) and as reality formats go, it’s fairly tasteful. Contestants don’t have to have sex, chew up wildlife or get married on camera. They don’t even spend the night at the location, but are whisked away in separate Land Rovers to some highlands Travelodge. What they have to do is suss out who the three secret ‘traitors’ are in their group while completing outward bounds activities and having emotional hotel buffet breakfasts in a Scottish castle. So essentially – a hen do, themed loosely around the occult.
The occult element involves the three Traitors (picked for the duplicitous roles after one-on-one interviews with host Claudia Winkleman) wearing hooded cloaks and gathering at the toll of a bell each night in the castle turret to choose their next ‘murder’ victim from among the Faithfuls. To clarify, the murders are solely admin-based and involve the victim getting a letter telling them they can’t come to the next day’s buffet breakfast.
The mundanity of the process doesn’t stop the rest of the group responding with the emotional restraint of a group of Year 11s on the last day of school. As each surviving contestant files in for their croissant and tiny glass of orange juice, the others whoop and applaud and cry and hug. Despite having spent less time together than most queues at bus stops, they’re all apparently very much in love, which would be quite sweet if it wasn’t total bollocks, because this game is all about backstabbing.
While the Traitors are trying to evade detection and throw the others off the scent, there’s a daily round table in which everybody points the finger at a suspected baddie. Think that bit in The Apprentice when the losing team fights over who’s going to be brought back into the boardroom combined with that bit in The Weakest Link where they all pretend to be gutted to vote off Sue from Rotherham and so draw hearts all over their voting board. Aspersions are cast, defences are made and one of the estate agents has to go outside for a little calm down when it all gets a bit much.
It is all a bit much, in the way that people who get cast on reality shows are always a bit much. This concentration of so many personal brands (there are 22 contestants at the beginning) spouting so much personal philosophy under one roof gives every group conversation the feel of doors being flung open on an industrial chicken shed. Cluck cluck I can spot fakes a mile off. Cluck cluck people underestimate me. Cluck cluck I’ve got no filter. Cluck cluck I didn’t come here to make friends.
Nobody came to make friends. They came to launch media careers and a chance at the £120,000 prize money. Or more properly, “up to £120,000” because the total depends on how well the group does in a series of tasks. The first of those involves lighting two giant wicker hares on fire using rowboats and a homemade fuse. (“It was using your fingers so you know, it was all really intense.”) The second is a bell-ringing/scavenger hunt combo (“I have never screamed ‘rocking horse’ so loudly in my life!”) And the third involves completing a survey while being spun around on a fairground ride (“My body’s this way up for a reason, otherwise people would just be walking around on their heads.” Well-reasoned.)
The contestants have various plans for their would-be winnings, from buying their mum a house to an amputee who wants to buy herself a bionic hand. One wants to use it to counsel young people, the kind of plan that would once have been funded via a local authority grant rather than a reality TV show prize pot, but then this is the Britain we’re in.
Will the Faithfuls sniff out the Traitors? Signs aren’t good, despite the vibrant deductive powers of the contestant who declared “This looks like the entrance to the castle” when he saw the long path leading up to the castle. They’re all certain they can spot a liar and play other people like violins. Early evidence though, suggest otherwise.
One thing is sure – the best way to watch The Traitors, which is being heavily bet on by the BBC as World Cup counter-programming, won’t be live or on Catch-Up, but on Gogglebox, filtered through whatever the Siddiquis, Jenny and Lee, and Giles and Mary make of it.
The Traitors starts on Tuesday the 29th of November on BBC One at 9.30pm and continues on Wednesday at 9.15pm and Thursday at 9pm. Episodes one to three will also be available to stream on BBC iPlayer on the same day.