When it comes to quality TV, you don’t often hear the names of reality series in the same orbit as compelling, scripted dramas, comedies, and thrillers. But there’s something unique about The Traitors, which premiered its first season on streaming service Peacock last year (it’s available to stream in Canada through Crave and on CTV; there’s also a Canadian spin-off).
Peacock recently cited Nielsen numbers indicating that the show has become the number-one unscripted series in the U.S. across all streaming platforms. That’s a big feat for a relatively new show competing with long-running favourites like Survivor and The Amazing Race (though neither of those two, it should be noted, are airing current seasons right now). What’s the big deal with The Traitors and is it worth watching?
What is The Traitors About?
Based on the board game Mafia, The Traitors, which itself is based on the Dutch series De Verraders that premiered in 2021, brings together 20 players (increased to 22 in season 2) in a lavish mansion in Scotland. Greeted by host Alan Cumming, they are told that they will undergo a psychological adventure whereby a few among them will secretly be named traitors. The rest will be known as faithfuls.
Everyone is blindfolded and Cumming circles the room, secretly touching a few people (usually three) on the shoulder to label them a traitor. From there, it’s the job of the traitors to meet in black hooded cloaks in secret (where they discover each other’s identities for the first time) and decide to covertly “murder” a different player every week.
There are competitions along the way to increase the prize pot. But more importantly, these competitions force people to reveal true colors, allegiances, and personality traits. There are also twists and turns throughout the game.
Each week, there’s also an intense roundtable discussion where group members vote on the person they want to banish, usually someone they suspect of being a traitor. The traitors can’t overtly reveal one another’s identities, but they can vote for one another if they so choose, effectively turning on their own.
The person with the most votes is banished and must reveal whether they were a faithful or a traitor. In the end, any faithfuls still standing share the prize pot. But if even one traitor remains, they snatch up the money, all to themselves, instead.
The Traitors Review
The Traitors is totally campy fun with deep drama mixed in for good measure. Cumming is the lifeblood of the show with his elaborate outfits, exaggerated Scottish accent, and Broadway-esque persona. He has said in interviews that this show is the campiest thing he has ever done, which he admits is saying a lot.
The long-time actor has appeared in numerous stage plays, including Le Bête, Cabaret, and Macbeth. He won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for playing Emcee in Cabaret in 1998. He has also appeared in numerous movies, including the Spy Kids trilogy, Eyes Wide Shut, and Burlesque. Fans know Cumming’s performance style is always flamboyantly theatrical. It’s no different in this show, making The Traitors a unique blend of over-the-top drama and serious mental torture.
While the cast in the second season is made up entirely of reality show “stars” who have appeared on other popular shows, like Big Brother, Survivor, and The Bachelor, the first season included a mix of both reality show personalities and other celebrities (think athlete Ryan Lochte) as well as average Joes. Die-hard fans prefer that mix: the show even earned an Emmy for Outstanding Casting for a Reality Program for season one. But the mix of strong reality show player personalities and the drama they bring, manufactured or not, makes The Traitors season 2 just as juicy, and arguably even more cut-throat.
What’s so exciting to watch in The Traitors is how the players, particularly the traitors, are forced to be on their game the entire time. One slip up of words, even a facial expression, can tip the faithfuls off that you’re a traitor. But it goes both ways: every act, facial expression, conversation, even mannerism or twitch, is scrutinized by everyone. People become paranoid that you might be “one of them” if you happen to say the wrong thing, look nervous, or didn’t try hard enough to get the safety pass that week.
Case in point: in the first episode of season 2 after the traitors were named, some players called out former English politician John Bercow for breathing heavily, considering it a sign of nervousness and him being guilty. In season 1, the mere act of accusing people she was suspicious of made all eyes turn to Lower Deck’s Kate Chastain, believing she was a traitor and trying desperately to deflect. Ironically, in season 2, Big Brother alum Dan Gheesling was thought to be a traitor simply because he was too quiet and reserved and not participating in the conversations or naming anyone.
It’s like psychological warfare, and while the mundane conversations throughout the show might seem silly, there’s a lot of strategy going on behind the scenes. Sure, some players act purely on emotion, and some have no perceptive skills at all. But when you come across a player who correctly identifies the traitors right away, they score big points with viewers. Usually, however, they’re also sent home because the traitors realize they’re onto them. But not always. The decision has to be weighed to examine all angles. Do the traitors send home the obvious person, solidifying that the finger-pointing was correct, or shake things up and send home someone completely unexpected to throw everyone off course?
There’s a lot to think about as you watch the drama unfold, so it’s no surprise The Traitors has been so well received. The show takes some of the best elements from games like Big Brother and Survivor and combines them with an Agatha Christie-like murder mystery. It’s all mentally exhausting but thoroughly entertaining.
Should You Watch The Traitors?
If you aren’t a fan of reality TV, don’t watch The Traitors. But if you can stomach some of the less drama-focused reality shows (so not The Bachelor or the Real Housewives, but perhaps shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race), The Traitors might actually be one you like.
Cumming initially comes across as over-the-top and ridiculous. But about halfway through the first episode, you’ll realize that’s the whole point. He is pretending this is his lavish castle (indeed, it’s an incredible castle) and these players are here for a fabulous party where they’ll be picked off and murdered one by one. It’s a sensationalized murder mystery wrapped in a reality show wrapped in a Broadway play.
Given the resurging popularity of the murder mystery genre on the whole, with shows like A Murder at the End of the World and Only Murders in the Building as well as movies like Knives Out and Glass Onion becoming fan favorites, The Traitors couldn’t have come at a better time.
I’d recommend giving The Traitors a shot, starting with season 1. Even if you have already read about the outcome of the season, watching the drama unfold is still worthwhile. But since the episodes are formulaic and each season features a unique cast, you won’t be missing anything if you decide to start with season 2 instead.
Keep in mind you’ll roll your eyes at some of the histrionics of the more outspoken reality TV show personalities. Others, however, might actually surprise you. Overall, The Traitors is an entertaining watch and may just become your new guilty pleasure.
The Traitors, which was recently renewed for a third season, is streaming on Crave in Canada and new season episodes air on CTV as well. The show streams on Peacock in the U.S. You can also check out season 1 of The Traitors Canada on Crave.