Formats Unpacked: Traitors

How a thought experiment became one of the biggest shows of the year

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It’s been a while since I found a TV show so compelling that I’d binge at a 3/60/4 rate. Thats three episodes per night, sixty minutes each, over four consecutive nights. Having avoided today’s format when broadcast just before Christmas, it became the perfect show for the holiday downtime. Not since the era when Big Brother was considered a social experiment has a reality show had me so gripped. So much so that I had to unpack it.

What is it?

Traitors (reality TV show)

What’s the format?

If you’ve played games like Werewolf or Mafia before then this brilliant new reality/game format will seem familiar. Twenty-two contestants, drawn from all walks of life, spend twelve days living together in a grand Scottish castle. Three out of the twenty-two have been selected as Traitors, whilst all other contestants take on the role of Faithfuls. The Faithfuls don't know who the traitors are, but the viewers do. Each night, Traitors secretly gather in the depths of night to decide which one of the Faithfuls they wish to kill, eliminating them from the game. The Faithfuls only find out who has been killed when one of them doesn’t show up for breakfast.

In each episode, the contestants take part in a group challenge to add money to the prize pot at the end of the series. After completing their challenge, the contestants return to the castle for dinner, followed by a Round Table in which each contestant casts a vote to banish the person they believe to be a Traitor. The banished person reveals, before leaving, whether they were either a Traitor or a Faithful.

By the end of the series, the last of the Faithfuls must have eliminated all of the Traitors to win a share of the prize money. If they fail to do so, the entire prize money goes to the surviving Traitors.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

As a TV commissioner, there’s nothing more pleasing than knowing your audience is screaming at their screens. It means they know something that the people on the other side don’t, but are soon to find out. Whether that’s the answer to a question on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, a bomb about to go off in a tense drama, or a much-loved soap character about to meet their fate. Traitors had more shout-at-the-telly moments than anything I’ve watched for decades. Two and a bit decades, to be precise.

Not since the legendary Nasty Nick moment in the first Big Brother series have I watched a TV show in which real people behave so deceitfully. Machiavelli himself would be embarrassed by the power moves used by some of the key players in Traitors. Backs are stabbed in every conversation, as players look for clues to who they will accuse of being traitors at that evening’s Round Table. Despite the clue in the name of the show, there were nightly tears and accusations of betrayal by contestants who have somehow totally forgotten they’re taking part in a game.

The real magic is that, by the time Faithfuls have been through a couple of Round Table experiences, they’ve see enough backstabbing to know anyone can turn on them, regardless of how close they claim to be. With Traitors keeping their cards so close to their chests, the lack of any plausible reason for eliminating players during the Round Table results in groupthink cranked up to 11.

It just takes one person to come up with a tenuous reason for suspicion before everyone piles on board to add their own take to the theory.  And so, to avoid being on the end of a Round Table pile-on, players have to come up with their own even more tenuous accusations and test them out in conversations throughout the day. No one wants to walk into a room and be greeted by silence. If you do, you better get spreading some theories about whoever was in the room when you entered. To win Traitors, you need a combination of likeablity and deviousness, otherwise it’s really hard to convince others of your theories, and your gameplay will be too obvious.

One of the most refreshing things about the UK version of Traitors is that, unlike the US version or original Dutch version, it doesn’t feature celebrities. The contestants are diverse and few seem likely to build influencer careers off the back their appearance. Some, such as Tom the magician, try to use their real-life jobs as justification that they will be good at the game. Yet the truth is, based on the first season, being able to ‘read’ people doesn’t help at all. The perfect balance of backstabbing and charm is what you need -  get that balance wrong, as Tom did, and you’ll face a very quick exit.

Favourite Episodes

The final episode has such a wonderful “he’s not gonna…he is!” moment. But I can’t tell you anything about it other than it was so sweet that the season’s climax, the final vote, felt slightly underwhelming. Still, I rank it up there as one of the best episodes of reality TV since Celebrity Big Brother’s ‘David’s Dead’ episode. Like the first season of Big Brother, Traitors might not reach this level of pure drama again, as future contestants will be wiser to the game. But for at least one season, this is reality TV at it’s finest.

Similar Formats

As mentioned above, it’s a mixture of Big Brother and classic party games like Werewolf and Mafia.

Thanks for reading.

If you’d like to see a favourite format unpacked leave a message in the comments or drop us an email. We’re always looking for formats that we might not know about. This week two different people suggested Normal Gossip which was totally new to me. I’d also love to hear about any cookery formats you’re enjoying. Last week I discovered You Suck At Cooking which must surely be a relation of the brilliant You Suck At Photoshop. Both are great examples of How To formats done differently.

OK. Enough from me. See you all next week.


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