How Shrewd Casting Helped Turn ‘The Traitors’ Into a Massive Hit in Season 2

After making a subtle splash with its first season, “The Traitors” took hold of the cultural conversation in Season 2. The January launch of the reality-celeb-heavy second outing became Peacock’s biggest reality debut ever, logging 384 million views the week of January 15 — a 75% increase over Season 1. By the end of the month, the show was the most-watched unscripted series in the U.S. across all streaming platforms.

“Season 1 was well received, but it definitely feels different in Season 2,” executive producer Toni Ireland said. “We’re obsessed with this show while we’re making it.”

Hosted once again by Alan Cumming, who sets the campy tone for the melodramatic game, Season 2 gathered more than 20 contestants in a posh Scottish castle, where the players worked together to grow their prize fund up to $250,000 — a pot that will either go to those dubbed “faithfuls” or those selected as “traitors.” Whereas the first season involved a mix of celebrities and civilians — mimicking the international versions filled solely with civilians — Season 2 introduced a cast of reality legends from the “Real Housewives,” “The Bachelor,” “The Challenge” and more.

“We knew that we wanted those classic gameplayers,” Ireland said, pointing to “Big Brother” alum Dan Gheesling and “Survivor” fan favorite Parvati Shallow. “We want those people that have proved that they’re brilliant at strategy. But within that mix, you don’t want 22 cast members that are all the same.”

Ireland and the team cast certain people — including “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Phaedra Parks, best known for her biting one-liners — with an eye on comedy, only to find they were killers at the game. “The players that you presumed would be incredible at strategy maybe haven’t been as strong as the people that you underestimate, like Phaedra,” Ireland said. “I don’t know if, going into this, anybody thought that she would play the game like she did.”

The same was true for former “Bachelor” Peter Weber, who Ireland called the “biggest surprise of the series.” He came up with a strategy to identify traitors that made the producers sit “open-mouthed as this played out,” Ireland said. “What I find so refreshing about working on this show is that it’s a TV show about a game, and with all great games — whether it’s Monopoly or cards — there’s a set of rules that players are given at the start and that’s how they know how to play the game.” Then, she added, it’s, “Off you go. Go and play it.”

Along the way, the EPs threw some fun yet plausible twists at the players including handing the traitors a “poisoned” chalice for a “murder” (elimination scheme) and bringing back Season 1 alum Kate Chastain more than halfway through the game. The twists and turns, Ireland said, have “got to fit in our world. We have lots and lots of different ideas (but) does it stray too far from the rules? Or does it not fit in our world? Those are the things that we always ask ourselves to make sure that the show feels authentic.”

Season 2 also upped the personal stakes among players as it brought together both longstanding friends — like Parks and “Real Housewives of Atlanta” alum Shereé Whitfield and from “The Challenge,” Chris “CT” Tamburello and Trishelle Cannatella—as well as known rivals, including Shallow and Sandra Diaz-Twine from “Survivor.” The tactic forced players to incorporate their outside loyalties and histories into the game. “I think it really enhances the show,” Ireland said. “That’s something that we would look for in seasons to come.”

With casting underway for the third season, Ireland underscored the importance of giving the audience players they want to root for, whether they’re faithfuls or traitors. “People come to this show for drama, for strategy, but they also come to this show for comedy,” she said. “We need to keep the warmth for the show. The show can be really dramatic and all about murders and punishments, but at its heart, it’s a funny show. And people really appreciate that.”

This story first ran in TheWrap’s awards magazine.

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