The Traitors US review – pure, evil, shout-at-the-TV brilliance | Television & radio

There’s nothing like a bit of backstabbing to liven up the doldrums of January. Clearly, someone at the BBC agrees, as arriving on iPlayer in its entirety is the US version of 2022’s best reality show, The Traitors. A word-of-mouth hit, this bum-clenchingly tense gameshow revitalised the watercooler moment, set group chats alight and garnered huge iPlayer numbers.

For those who missed it, the gameplay went something like this: 22 contestants headed to a castle in the Highlands where, joined by the host, Claudia Winkleman, they competed to win a cash prize. Sowing seeds of discontent were the traitors, three members of the group who were chosen to “murder” their fellow contestants and thereby reduce the player pool. The rest of the players – the faithful – were tasked with unhooding the traitors at nightly roundtable discussions, where accusations and paranoia rose to the surface. During the day, meanwhile, they worked as a team to win money. If the faithful successfully eliminated all the traitors before the final, they got to share the prize pot. If a traitor remained, they won everything.

While a second series has yet to be officially commissioned, the US version of the show, which is based on the Dutch series De Verraders, has already been filmed. Replacing Winkleman is the debonair actor Alan Cumming, who switches the former’s collection of knitwear for a patchwork of tartan suits and a wild mid-Atlantic Scottish accent. Unlike in the British version, the contestants are a mix of normal people and former reality TV stars, from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Below Deck, The Batchelor, Survivor and US Big Brother plus, for some reason, the Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte.

The Traitors US review – pure, evil, shout-at-the-TV brilliance | Television & radio
Debonair … Alan Cumming in The Traitors US. Photograph: Euan Cherry/BBC/Studio Lambert & All3Media International

Anyone who delighted in the camaraderie between contestants on the British show might find the dynamic between almost-famous faces and normies difficult to begin with. This is a group of people who, from the off, are at odds with each other, and they remain so until the last few episodes. Part of this, perhaps, is down to the inclusion of so many big personalities. The former Real Housewife Brandi Glanville and Below Deck’s Kate Chastain are the most divisive characters by far, bringing a wicked but entertaining quality to the round tables and hushed gossip sessions.

Kate’s feud with Rachel Reilly, a contestant from US Big Brother, becomes particularly barbed, albeit with some fabulous one-liners from Kate, who at one point says Rachel’s outfits look like community theatre costumes. This hostility runs over into the round tables, where allegations of deceitful gameplay morph into personal attacks. “If I’m incorrect,” Kate says after voting for Rachel, “I’m OK with it, because I find you really offensive.”

The slanging matches aren’t solely between these two, though: one early suspect for traitor, a 35-year-old office manager called Michael, is pummelled from every angle, his personality dissected and criticised over numerous round tables. You would feel sorry for him if he hadn’t spent one of the challenges whispering ultimatums to the other contestants to convince them to banish a 29-year-old actor, Geraldine, who, much to Michael’s chagrin, turns out to be a faithful.

There is far more scheming and duplicity among these contestants. While UK players often resorted to groupthink during round tables, here you see faithful and traitors manipulating weaker players throughout the day, setting them on anyone perceived as suspicious. The traitors are far more distrusting of one another, which results in some jaw-dropping plot twists.

Far more duplicitous … The Traitors US.
Far more duplicitous … The Traitors US. Photograph: BBC/Studio Lambert & All3Media International

Overall, it’s a far more vicious approach, which only highlights how dynamic and unpredictable the format is. No two people will play the same way, even when they are meant to be working in tandem. The misstep here is the decision to drop all episodes at once: The Traitors feels best enjoyed through the communality of linear broadcasting.

Still, by the time you reach episode eight (which could already scoop the award for the year’s best hour of reality TV), the tension is so unbearable that you will be glad the last two episodes are there for binging. Just be prepared for the stress-inducing final episode, which is pure shout-at-the-TV brilliance. As one contestant says in episode nine: “Everybody’s all in love now, but there will be blood later.” They are not wrong.

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