‘The Traitors’ Proves That in Reality TV, Casting Is King

[Editor’s Note: this story contains minor spoilers for “The Traitors” Season 2, now streaming on Peacock. It also spoils the end of “The Traitors” Season 1.]

Given its struggles to find an audience, Peacock managing to get a successful show of any kind is a minor miracle in itself. But the NBCUniversal Media Group service has found its most recent success intruding on the market Netflix dominates streaming-wise: reality TV.

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On January 26, it was reported that “The Traitors,” a structured competition show on Peacock, will almost certainly hit the Nielsen streaming top 10 rankings for the week of January 15-21, when its second season premiered. Viewers watched 384 million minutes of the show during the seven-day time frame, including all of the show’s first season and the first four episodes of the second. Peacock reported that the show’s audience grew by 75 percent compared to its first season — a massive rise that’s unsurprising if you’ve been paying attention.

Season 1, which dropped all episodes in January 2022, wasn’t quite a breakout hit, but it quickly attracted a following among reality TV superfans amid positive buzz. With Season 2 in a position to build upon the momentum, Peacock made two smart decisions that primed the show to fully blow up in its sophomore year. The first was to switch from a binge drop to a weekly release, inviting the type of discussion and speculation on the outcome that reality competition series naturally generate. The second and more radical change was to make the actual game on this gameshow mostly irrelevant, and turn the franchise into the “Avengers” or “Super Smash Bros.” of reality television.

For the uninitiated, “The Traitors” is a relatively young reality competition format that has exploded, “Love Island” style, into an international franchise. The original series, “De Verraders” was created by Marc Posand Jasper Hoogendoor, and premiered on Dutch channel RTL 4 in 2021. In the three years since over 20 adaptations have premiered in various countries. Peacock actually hosts three different iterations of the franchise: the U.S. version which premiered in 2023, and the first seasons of both the Australian and the United Kingdom editions. The Australian version (now reportedly canceled) is a separate entity, but the British and American “Traitors” are effectively sister shows: they’re both produced by British company Studio Lambert, film at Ardross Castle in the Scottish Highlands, and feature the same missions and twists each season, albeit remixed and ordered somewhat differently.

As for the game the cast plays when they arrive in Scotland, think of it as a multi-day game of “Mafia.” In the first episode, the host (Claudia Winkleman and Alan Cumming, both delightful in their own ways, preside over the British and American versions, respectively) selects two to four contestants to serve as “Traitors;” the choices are left a mystery to the rest of the cast, known as the “Faithful.” Every night after a day of socializing, the Faithful convene at the castle’s Roundtable and discuss who they believe are Traitors, ultimately voting to “Banish” one of their own from the game. The banished player reveals before they walk out the door if they’re a Faithful or Traitor, but are ejected from the game regardless. Afterward, The Traitors secretly convene to “Murder” a player of their choice, also removing said player from the game. The process continues until four players remain, at which point they vote to either end the game or banish another person. When a unanimous decision to end the game is reached, the prize money is split equally among the remaining contestants if they’re all Faithful; if any Traitors remain, they steal the money for themselves.

THE TRAITORS -- "Betrayers, Fakes and Fraudsters" Episode 201 -- Pictured: Alan Cumming -- (Photo by: Euan Cherry/PEACOCK)
“THE TRAITORS” Alan Cumming (Photo by: Euan Cherry/PEACOCK)Euan Cherry/PEACOCK

Although the murder mystery gimmick gives the show an arch, camp flair that distinguishes itself from other reality competitions of its ilk, the actual gameplay format of “The Traitors” often proves decidedly lackluster. In this nascent stage of its lifespan, the franchise’s structure offers fewer opportunities for complex social strategy than you can find on stalwart CBS shows like “Survivor” or “Big Brother” (or at least, what you can find when those shows aren’t being ruined by horrible, unnecessary twists), and Round Table conversations generally devolve into boring groupthink. Certain elements need fine-tuning to incorporate more fully into the gameplay loop: the missions the cast partakes in every episode, where they compete as a team to add money to a prize pot (similar to Netflix’s “The Mole”) typically feel entirely superfluous without any way to help the Faithful suss out the Traitors.

The Faithful generally could use more help; the game is heavily tilted in the Traitors’ favor to a ludicrous extent, giving them all of the power with almost zero downsides. Most problematic is the fact that banishing enough Traitors results in the surviving members receiving the ability to “recruit” Faithful into their ranks, so the show can guarantee it hits the allotted episode count. The mechanic results in a massive incongruity where — despite the hosts’ insistence on the urgency of weeding the saboteurs out — individual banishments typically lack meaningful stakes and directly targeting Traitors isn’t actually optimal Faithful gameplay for the majority of the season. Season 2 of the U.S. version makes the issue particularly obvious, featuring at least one banishment that’s more about killing a power alliance than targeting an actual Traitor candidate.

With such a wobbly format, what makes “The Traitors” a sensation among the reality TV Faithful? Because since the dawn of the genre with “Survivor” Season 1 back in 2000, reality TV competitions have always succeeded on the strength of their characters. All the flashy moves and complex game mechanics in the world will land with a thud when the people on screen aren’t vibrant and entertaining to watch or the cast fails to develop compelling chemistry. In its 2022 debut, “The Traitors” UK understood this, and its first season delivered thanks to an excellent group of competitors that felt refreshingly normal and authentic by reality TV standards (although it has yet to make its way to Peacock, Season 2 of the British version aired its second outing on BBC One this January to high ratings and positive fan reception).

The first season of the American season, premiering in 2023 a month after its British counterpart wrapped, proved inferior thanks to the intriguing but ultimately failed decision to split the contestant pool between normal civilians and Reality TV veterans. From the start, the cast balance and chemistry proved fatally off, as the new faces faded into the background while the established names dominated both screentime and strategy. The fresh meat that did get focus, like Traitor Christian de la Torre or incompetent Faithful Quentin Jiles, uniformly lacked the charisma you want from a reality star. The show still had its charms — chiefly, “Survivor” great Cirie Fields finally winning her first competition series and “Below Deck” menace Kate Chastain creating perpetual chaos in the castle — but its flawed casting and even more flawed format meant it lacked the spark that makes a good reality TV season a great reality TV season.

For Season 2, rather than keep the 50/50 normie/reality contestant split or mimic its British cousin further by casting exclusively TV newcomers, “The Traitors” US instead forged its own path and bet all of its cards on existing personalities. Aside from three semi-random semi-celebrities — Michael Jordan’s son Marcus, professional boxer Deontay Wilder, and, most entertainingly out of place of all, former Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow — everybody on Season 2 has some experience in reality TV, be it on social competition series like “Survivor,” talent shows like “Dancing With the Stars” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” dating programs like “The Bachelor” and “Love Island,” or the massive “Real Housewives” franchise, which has four representatives alone. Given the loyalty that reality TV stars can inspire — you can find a fan obsessed with any random 10th placer from “Survivor” if you search the internet far enough — it was the perfect strategy to get people’s attention; the late 2023 cast announcement invited headlines proclaiming the new crop of Traitors and Faithfuls “Reality TV Royalty.”

THE TRAITORS -- "The Funeral" Episode 204 -- Pictured: (l-r) Trishelle Cannatella, Ekin-Su Cülcüloğlu, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Kevin Kreider, Parvati Shallow, Larsa Pippen, Shereé Whitfield, Dan Gheesling, Phaedra Parks, Mercedes “MJ” Javid, Chris 'C.T.' Tamburello -- (Photo by: PEACOCK)

It helps that the casting is genuinely stacked. A combination of factors about “The Traitors” — its quick-paced production schedule of at most two weeks, the free vacation to Scotland appearing on the series offers, the relative lack of strenuous physical challenges, and the lavish breakfast buffet that opens every day of the game — makes the program an appealing prospect to genuine legends of reality TV, and Season 2 managed to find all-time greats from various corners of the reality world. “Survivor” is represented by its first two-time winner Sandra Diaz-Twine as well as Parvati Shallow, one of the franchise’s most skilled manipulators. “Big Brother’s” consensus greatest player Dan Gheesling dons the Traitors robes (his main competitor for that greatest player title, Will Kirby, won’t compete but is set to make a guest appearance later in the season), while one of the show’s most popular contestants Janelle Pierzina brings her brand of confrontational drama as a Faithful. Johnny “Bananas” Devanzino and CT Tamburello represent long-running “Real World” offshoot “The Challenge” with 15 wins across the MTV program to their names, as well as a general meathead charm.

This casting shifts the appeal of the show significantly. In Season 1, the hook was the competition and the murder mystery gimmick itself. In Season 2, the format feels secondary to the crossover potential of watching so many legends from different reality franchises come together and alternatively ally or spar with each other. And the cast proves largely as great in practice as they are on paper; Dan, Parvati, and “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Phaedra Parks have wonderful chemistry as the initial batch of Traitors, while players like Sandra and Janelle are a treat in confessionals and especially during an explosive fight against each other at the Round Table.

Along with Phaedra, other non-competitive stars prove capable of holding their own: it’s a delightful surprise to watch Peter Weber, who came off as an indecisive moron during his stint as “The Bachelor,” demonstrate genuine strategic chops as a Faithful. In a cast of 22, inevitably some fade into the background, and others prove to be less adept than others, although that’s not always a bad thing; in any good reality competition there have to be some trainwrecks, and hilariously dumb Faithful like Kevin Kreider of “Bling Empire” fame fill that quota with flying colors. In a cast of greats, the low stakes of banishments are raised by how much it stings to lose incredible characters: it was a massive bummer to see “RuPaul’s Drag Race” queen Peppermint, the only trans cast member on the show, get banished first after an extraordinarily dumb misunderstanding with “Challenge” vet Trishelle Cannatella.

Given how much “The Traitors” Season 2 relies on its strong casting, many of the storylines in the season carry over from the original shows of its contestants. Episode 1 introduces tension between Sandra and Parvati, a frenemy relationship that goes back to 2010’s “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains.” In a confessional, Trishelle discusses how CT has mellowed after their 2013 season of “The Challenge,” which is much more meaningful when you know how much of a hot-headed disaster CT was for years on the MTV series. The amount of history inherent to the show makes it decidedly not very newcomer-friendly; you’re going to have a lot more fun watching Dan call Parvati a Black Widow or reference throwing his own funeral when you know the reality TV lore behind what he’s saying.

At the same time, “The Traitors” also helps act as a taste test that can help introduce fans to reality TV genres they have limited experience with. This reporter personally came into the show with a deep knowledge of the CBS show competitors, decent familiarity with “The Bachelor” and “Love Island” stars, and absolutely zero understanding of the entire “Real Housewives” ecosystem. But the women from the franchise selected make me want to try the franchise because they’re all terrific assets to the series. Phaedra brings interesting wrinkles as a somewhat emotional Traitor, while cast members Larsa Pippen, Tamra Judge, and Shereé Whitfield know how to bring entertaining, petty drama to the show that powers it from episode to episode.

That drama also helps “The Traitors” stick out from the pack. As the reality TV competition genre has evolved over the past decade or so, the shows have intentionally pushed a more “be a good sport” and positive vibes approach in the edit: you won’t find a fight as explosive as Keesha’s Birthday or a takedown as withering as Sue Hawk’s “Snakes and Rats” monologue in modern entries of the “Big Brother” and “Survivor” canon, and while there’s certainly heinous racism, sexism, and homophobia on earlier seasons of the shows (not that they still can’t be wildly problematic), the lack of personality clashes that make reality TV so wildly compelling can leave recent entries of the series sterile. By bringing old-school players from the glory days of reality TV along with Housewives whose livelihood is based on their ability to create drama, “The Traitors” brings genuine conflict back to competitions where it belongs without it ever getting too uncomfortably real: this is a cast that’s willing to openly feud, vote for others just because they don’t like them, and carry bitter grudges out the door. If the format of the show doesn’t necessarily succeed at creating interesting gameplay, it succeeds wildly at generating arguments as people toss around the Traitor label like a Scarlet Letter.

The ultimate sign of the show’s true priorities comes in Episode 5, when Season 1’s Kate is brought back by producers as a “surprise” castle guest, giving her a free pass to survive after many banishments and murders. Ostensibly there to compete; in reality, she’s there to cause the discord she inspired during Season 1. On a more established show like “Survivor,” where the cast treats the game with absolute reverence, such a cheap moment would be seen as betraying its sanctity. In a show like “The Traitors,” where strategy isn’t particularly the draw? Whatever brings the most fun is fair game.

Is “The Traitors” the best reality competition show currently running? No, not really. Its format issues hold it back from the greatness “Survivor” or “Big Brother” hit during their peaks, and even then both shows can still manage the odd amazing season in their legacy years. Even among “The Traitors” verse, the British series — with its cast of original stars and homegrown storylines — is still more satiating. But if nothing else, it’s the most fun reality competition show to talk about, with every episode provoking Twitter discussion among reality fans of all different stripes taking sides in various in-show arguments, speculating wildly on who’s getting to the end, and dreamcasting future editions of this all-stars series. (If “Traitors” casting is reading: bring “Survivor” legend Angelina Keeley back to our TV screens.)

In a sea of similar shows, “The Traitors” truly feels like an event, a big-budget crossover that demands the attention of all reality fans. It’s a big reminder that when it comes to reality TV, the personalities playing the games will always matter more than the games themselves.

“The Traitors” Season 2 is currently streaming on Peacock. New episodes premiere Thursdays.

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