Not watching The Traitors? Here's why everyone is talking about the BBC show

The BBC series has really captured the attention of the nation

Claudia Winkleman hosts The Traitors with glee. (BBC)
Claudia Winkleman hosts The Traitors with glee. (BBC)

It’s been a long time since a reality show has lodged itself so firmly into the public consciousness like the BBC’s The Traitors, hosted by Claudia Winkleman.

Viewers have been gripped as the 22 contestants have engaged in a murder mystery game of deception and detection, trying to identify the hidden Traitors in their midst. You’d have to go back to the heady days of Caroline Flack-era Love Island to find a show that really captured the attention of the nation to become essential, appointment-to-watch, cannot miss telly like The Traitors has.

The second season – which started a few weeks ago – was an instant hit and the opening episode drew 3.1m viewers (18.3% audience share), which more than doubled to 6.4 million with iPlayer streams. Not bad for a midweek launch in the middle of January, and the BBC claims it is “the biggest new entertainment brand in the market for 16-34’s.”

However, despite having nearly 20% of the market share, this means that more people are NOT watching The Traitors than are. So if you are one of those Traitors agnostics, here’s what you need to know ahead of the final three episodes airing this week.

The Traitors format

Claudia selected the Traitors in the opening episode of season 2. (BBC)
Claudia selected the Traitors in the opening episode of season 2. (BBC)

All versions of the show follow the same loose format. A group of contestants (22 in the current UK version) compete to win a prize pot of cash which accumulates throughout the season. At the very start a small number (2-4) of them are selected – in secret – to be Traitors. The rest are the Faithful, and it’s up to them to suss out which among them are the Traitors.

If the Faithful can reach the end and eliminate all the Traitors, they will share the prize money between them. If any Traitors remain undetected by the final episode, they take home ALL the prize money.

Every day, the cast participate in a physical or mental team challenge to win money for the prize pot, then every evening they reconvene around a table and vote for the person they think is a Traitor. The person with the most votes is then Banished from the competition, and they reveal to the players if they were a Traitor or a Faithful.

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Harry has been the standout Traitor of season 2. (BBC)

The Traitors also have the power to ‘murder’ one Faithful every evening, which they do in secret, leaving the cast to figure out who has left around the breakfast table every morning.

This is no around-the-clock Big Brother style show though. The cast don’t live on site (a Scottish castle in the US and UK versions), sleeping in a hotel away from the competition in isolation every evening.

Like its reality TV show forebear Big Brother, The Traitors began life on Dutch TV, with De Verraders debuting in 2021. There are now 23 international versions of the show from Australia to Russia and everywhere in between, and the UK incarnation landed in November 2022.

The appeal of The Traitors

Andrew, Jasmine, and Ross at the Banishment roundtable, one of the key moments of drama in The Traitors. (BBC)
Andrew, Jasmine, and Ross at the Banishment roundtable, one of the key moments of drama in The Traitors. (BBC)

The appeal of The Traitors is simple: The dichotomy at the heart of the show drives every conversation and interaction as the Faithful try to find the Traitors, while the Traitors must evade detection and pick off the strongest Faithful.

No conversation can be held without a hint of suspicion, and the contestants spend every moment of every day playing the game, so every chat and interaction is loaded with meaning, and there are no lulls where the cast sit around aimlessly chatting (hello Big Brother, Love Island, I’m a Celebrity etc).

If you are a Faithful and you raise concerns about a Traitor, you put yourself at risk of murder. And if you are a Traitor, you must act like a Faithful, so if you don’t raise suspicions about other players, it makes you look like a Traitor. Traitors must try to deflect attention from themselves to avoid detection, but deflect too much and it becomes too obvious. It's like a Shakespeare play of conflicts.

Paul's machinations as a Traitor made for brilliant TV drama. (BBC)
Paul's machinations as a Traitor made for brilliant TV drama. (BBC)

This can also lead to in-fighting within the Traitors, who can also recruit new Traitors as the game goes on, if they go down to two Traitors. Traitors can’t murder other Traitors, but they can point the finger of suspicion at their allies, and even vote for them to be banished, as has happened a number of times in this latest season, most famously as Paul was offed with no mercy by fellow Traitor (and current favourite to win) Harry.

As the cast numbers dwindle, the stakes get higher and higher, and this is all elevated by the show’s regular use of cliffhangers (sometimes to the detriment of the show), and moments of high confrontation. But it’s also a delightfully camp show with its slowed down pop music covers, cinematic camera swoops, and pantomime hosting from the tweed-wearing Claudia Winkleman.

The Traitors cast

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Claudia Winkleman leads the cast in a faux funeral procession in a highlight moment from S2 of The Traitors. (BBC)

The camaraderie of the cast seems to be genuine and — mercifully — the BBC has avoided the pitfalls of most other reality shows by casting the show with regular but watchable people. Yes, there are eccentrics in the show, but every one is invested in the game, and not just there to grow their social media following. And this year's crop has been really watchable with a rogues gallery of heroes and villains whose fortunes ebb and flow from moment to moment.

If the BBC can continue to cast regular joes, rather than falling into the Big Brother trap of only hiring wannabes, the Traitors could be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

The Traitors S2 concludes this week on BBC iPlayer.

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