A few thoughts on the surprise success of The Traitors

The Traitors
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Even if you don’t ordinarily warm to reality TV, a few words on why the BBC’s The Traitors might just win you back for a bit.


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Those of us old enough to remember the first series of Big Brother may well recall that part of its original success was its novelty, its sheer surprise. Here was a well-realised format, that was breaking ground, that its competitors came to fresh with no pre-conceptions.

It’s telling that the country was gripped in 2000 by a villainous character called Nasty Nick back in those innocent days who, in the scheme of things, wasn’t actually that Nasty. Certainly not compared to some of those who’ve come through reality TV since, on both sides of the judging divide. Shows got a lot nastier in the years that followed too. I still remember checking out of The X Factor when they played a video of one family who weren’t super-slim to music designed to ridicule them. Never watched a frame of it since, and the cruelty that’s run through reality TV has been well charted.

Hand in hand with the rise of reality television, the audience has got savvier to the setup of such shows. Thus, so have the contestants, which I’m coming to in a minute.

It all becomes a circle: the people behind the shows ramp up the ante to try and wrongfoot us, even though we’ve seen much of it before, the shows then become – with one or two exceptions – nastier. That, or became more about the personalities of the judging panel rather than the competitors. Contrast early series of The Apprentice when it was a little less about Alan Sugar with what the show has long since become.

Perhaps crucially then, the innocence of the contestants was lost along the way. So what if you lost money on a challenge, or didn’t get that big prize? Play the media game right, and there’s a second career waiting for you. The stakes, no matter how much the narrator would tell you, were rarely as sizeable as they appeared. The prizes were much bigger on the outside of the show than inside it.

A lot of preamble, then. Because I – like many – have found a show that suddenly has dragged me back into reality television when I wasn’t expecting it at all. And it awaits you if you haven’t yet had the pleasure.

I stumbled across The Traitors over Christmas, having had it recommended to me by people who were well aware of what I don’t like. And I thank them for it. As many before me have rightly pointed out, it’s quite brilliant, and shouldn’t be spoiled for you. I won’t be spoiling it, and the whole series – at the time of writing – is available on the BBC’s iPlayer service.

It’s a format that the BBC bought in from the Netherlands (and there are versions of the show running or about to run across the world), and has quickly capitalised on. A brief, necessary overview of the setup? There are 22 contestants sent up to a Scottish castle. Three of them are anointed traitors. Interestingly, we – the viewers – know who they are right from the start. This simple format decision leaves us with scream at the telly moments where one player is adamant that so-and-so isn’t the traitor, and starts getting angry when others accuse them. We, however, know that the person they’re talking about is indeed one of the traitors. It’s like a good thriller, where the audience is allowed to be ahead of the characters, and all the better for it.

This is then supported by the basics of reality TV. Some tasks to do, and some eliminations. No phone numbers to ring, but assorted machinations to sit through. Here again though, The Traitors was interesting. Effectively, two competitors an episode are ejected. At the end of each day, the ‘faithful’ choose who to banish, hoping to catch a traitor. And then at the end of each show, the traitors meet to work out who to murder. There are no real deaths, mind.

The Traitors with Claudia Winkleman

Straight away that’s two competing mechanics, that top and tail the programme. A tactic to save you from type of exit one might not save you from the other, and the skillfully edited game playing (naturally accompanied by a score that tells you when you should be tensing up) is soon in full flow.

In the midst of all of that lot though, there are the missions, which on the surface have all the feel of filler about them. In The Traitors, everyone puts rivalries to the side to work together to earn money for the prize fund, with the funds at the end of the series either going to traitors or faithful, depending who ultimately survives to the very end.

The missions though: well, there are horror cinema fans at the production company, that much is clear. These are the moments that could be forgettable, a bit of necessary business to get the cash fund built up. But the missions in The Traitors are oftentimes absolutely insane. Spoiler-free again, just to say it’s to the credit of the team behind the show that they made the most disposable part of the programme so compulsive. I’m wagering they’ve watched a lot of horror movies.

But the main asset of the show, hosted strongly by Claudia Winkleman, is its varied range of contestants. And how refreshing a line-up was recruited, 22 competitors who gave every sign of not having a clue quite what was around the corner.

The trick to shows like this – format aside for the minute – is casting. The cliché is that reality shows attract people under 40, who fit the norm of television shows. With The Traitors, there’s a huge age spread amongst the competitors and heck does the show benefit. All of a sudden, we’re not seeing the same old same old playing out. Having someone in their 70s set against someone in their 20s is far, far more interesting, and someone went to great efforts to find a broad line-up for the programme. They deserve a pay rise, if such things still exist.

What’s also interesting is the undercurrent of meanness that we sometimes get in such shows was, on the whole, missing. So what that means is that even when people are pitted against each other, and the plotting is underway, the show doesn’t focus on people slagging each other off. Sure, if there’s a verbal punch-up, the cameras follow it, but there’s not the sense that the show is looking for it. It’s telling that after reveals of who people are, everybody in the show is clearly still getting on to some degree. How refreshing is that?

I really loved The Traitors, and I never thought I’d say that about a show of its ilk again. It’s been a sizeable success too, and as such, the BBC is looking at making more. A second series will be a challenge, as the cat is out of the metaphorical bag now. New contestants will know the fundamentals, and the casting job for a sophomore run is heightened.

Worryingly, and perhaps inevitably, there are now reports that the BBC is instead looking to jump to a celebrity version of the programme. My heart sank when I read that. The whole beauty of it, as many better people than me have pointed out, is it’s not the same conveyor belt of people. That’s a good thing isn’t it? In fact, the best suggestion I’ve read is to replay the series with the full cast of the first. That would be bold. That would be daring.

But whichever way the BBC goes, even if we only get one good series, what a series it turned out to be. Do check it out if you haven’t seen it. And don’t let any bugger spoil it for you.

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