Why ‘The Traitors’ is one of the greatest reality TV shows ever


Spoilers for “The Traitors” abound. You have been warned!

Gather round, ye children, while I tell you a tale of intrigue, treachery and coldblooded murder.

Fake murder, sure. But, oh, is it delicious.

Every few days or so I find myself trying to recruit friends and strangers alike into the fandom of “The Traitors,” the hit competition reality show streaming on Peacock that’s an American offshoot of excellent predecessors in the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. Now in its second season, it’s essentially an incredibly campy, gorgeously shot version of the parlor game Mafia that takes place in a Scottish castle, filled with legendary reality TV stars plotting to secretly “murder” one another. Not convinced? Um, okay … the great Scottish actor Alan Cumming is the host, in a wardrobe made up entirely of fabulous cloaks and cocked fedoras.

What makes “The Traitors” so popular is something akin to four-quadrant appeal. You can enjoy it as a complete reality-show novice, like my friend who started watching because she loves Cumming on PBS’s “MASTERPIECE Mystery!” But if you want to delve into the players’ histories and strategic gameplay, a deeper and even more satisfying experience awaits. It’s fascinating to see how the “gamers” (from “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” etc.) face off against “non-gamers” (“Housewives,” “The Bachelor”) and often get their asses handed to them.

It is Cumming who, in the first episode, paces slowly around blindfolded contestants gathered at a roundtable and places his hand on the shoulders of a chosen few — designating them this season’s Traitors. Their job is to “murder” one other player each night and to remain undetected during the day. And it is the job of the many other players, known as the Faithful, to root out the Traitors in their midst and vote to banish them one-by-one after a vicious and paranoid roundtable discussion, before they retire to bed and the cycle of death begins once more. They’re also all working together in challenges to win money to add to the prize pot, but if any Traitors remains at the end, they will steal it all.

The cast is all drama, all the time. Think dueling “Survivor” queens Parvati Shallow and Sandra Diaz-Twine, Peter Weber from “The Bachelor,” Chris “CT” Tamburello from “The Challenge,” a quartet of Real Housewives and, very randomly, John Bercow, former Speaker of the U.K.’s House of Commons.

The whole endeavor is a delectable witch’s brew of “The Hunger Games,” Agatha Christie mysteries and a knockdown Bravo reunion special. It’s also a bona fide television phenomenon that has slithered its way into the zeitgeist like an anaconda in hunt of its prey.

“This is the best that television can be, this show,” said Bowen Yang on a recent episode of the podcast “Las Culturistas.”

Why else do we love this show? Let us plunge to the heart of it:

Cumming, Cumming, Cumming

The joy of having a master thespian, and Scot, take the reins is that he knows at all times he’s playing a part. “MY castle,” he calls it. “MY turret.” He has a lap dog, Lala, with whom he coordinates outfits, and a groundskeeper Fergus, with a waist-length red beard, who wordlessly does his dirty work. Often, Cumming will referee challenges in muddy fields from a tufted leather chair, holding opera glasses. He’s erudite enough to quote Shakespeare or Plato, all from a Bond villain persona. This season, he couldn’t stop grinning during a challenge in which players, including a former member of Parliament, ran through the castle imitating bird calls. On Thursday’s episode, he pulled the portrait of the murdered Faithful, Kevin Kreider (“Bling Ring Empire”), off the wall and softly intoned: “Whenever the magnificent stag bellows in the forest I will hear your voice.” Then he tossed it to the ground. “Not really.” This man is having the time of his life and it shows.

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If the show has a breakout accessory, it’s the bedazzled headbands that Parvati Shallow, a “Survivor” queen and a dearly departed Traitor (as of episode 8), wears in every episode. “I don’t wear headbands in my day-to-day life, but I wanted to play a character for ‘Traitors,’” she told me in an interview after her banishment. She presented her stylist with two inspirations, Moira Rose from “Schitt’s Creek” and Blair Waldorf from “Gossip Girl,” because, says Shallow, “I thought they’d really thrive in this kind of environment.” They ultimately chose headband-devotee Blair Waldorf and an iconic look was born. “I’m hanging out with all these gay guys,” Shallow says, “and they’re like, ‘We all know what our Halloween costume is.’”

Shallow, who’s been on “Survivor” four times and won a season where she masterminded the “Black Widow Brigade” to eliminate all the men, says the main difference she’s noticed is that “The Traitors” is a show first, and a game second. And what separates her from many of the other contestants is that she truly got that memo. “[‘Survivor’] is a slog and it’s all about how much you endure the worst and suffer,” says Shallow. “But with ‘Traitors,’ it’s like you’re wearing silk pajamas, going to bed in a castle, poisoning people and having a great time hanging out with Alan.” Psychologically, keeping up a lie for so long was tough, she says. “But the outfits and Alan made it very well worth it for me.”

The endlessly meme-able Phaedra Parks

In a show chock full of people who make great TV, Phaedra Parks from “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” stands alone, literally. A friend of mine has a theory that her gigantic fake eyelashes are the reason she’s the only original Traitor left — as of the end of Thursday’s episode — since no one can tell what she’s thinking. The internet has instantly memed both her overreactions and hilarious underreactions at breakfast, when the players discover who’s been murdered the night before. While others are practically weeping about a fallen comrade, she’ll ask if there are any boiled eggs. Alternatively, when she found out Shallow had “poisoned” a beloved “Love Island U.K.” winner, Parks dramatically began fanning herself as if about to faint: “Oh lord, sweet baby Jesus, not Ekin-Su! Oh lord, not Ekin-Su!” The quote has since become shorthand in certain corners for expressing shock. Someone on Reddit even made it a Valentine: “Roses are red / Violets are blue / Oh lord sweet baby Jesus / not Ekin-Su.”

My friends who watch “Housewives” say her penchant for one-liners and ability to tear opponents apart (she’s a former litigator) are well-known. Others are obsessed with a perceived “rom-com” between Parks and Tumburello — a bro from Boston who spent 20 years competing on “The Challenge,” often winning — chronicling whenever they hold hands in a challenge or defend one another.

“It’s, like, the oddest couple,” Shallow tells me. “But hey, you can’t fight love. Love finds a way.”

But will it last? On Thursday, Tumburello finally voted to banish Parks.

Weber had one of the messiest “Bachelor” seasons on record, due to his inability to make decisions. It’s been amazing to see him dominate here (annoying plenty of people along the way) by throwing out chaotic game strategies and leading a moralizing group who’ve been dubbed, alternatively, “the Most Faithful of the Faithfuls,” “Peter’s Pals” and “the Himbo Alliance.” As of Thursday’s episode, his head was on the chopping block. His holier-than-thou plots had left an opening for the remaining Traitors to cast paranoia against him, particularly his tendency to hold closed-door meetings — which has resulted in the emergence of another great Agatha-Christie-like character in Mercedes “MJ” Javid from “Shahs of Sunset,” who comically tiptoes around the castle, eavesdropping.

In the biggest killjoy moment of the season, he actually turned down Parvati’s attempt to recruit him as a Traitor, saying he wanted to win “the right way.” But hating him has become a rallying point for fans. “It’s kind of like ‘Hunger Games,’” says Shallow, “where people have their tribute that they can root for, but it brings all the kingdoms together.”

Thursday night’s episode ended in a dramatic 4-4 cliffhanger vote between Parks and Weber for banishment and I actually screamed at the screen.

We now have a new Traitor in Kate Chastain from “Below Deck,” a glorious return player from Season 1 who was brought back primarily as an agent of chaos. She’s the show’s Zsa Zsa Gabor, with a “give me Park Avenue” attitude. “I do love a dramatic cloak and I do love a VIP club and I do love knowing secrets, so I guess I’m a traitor now. It might be fun,” Chastain said after Parks recruited her, appropriately, in a dungeon. Shallow thinks she’ll thrive as a Traitor: “I think she’ll just take out people that she’s annoyed by … so it’s going to be hard to pin her down.”

Shallow’s pick to win is Parks, but, even if she survives this cliffhanger roundtable she’s likely still a goner in next week’s episode or soon thereafter. After that, Shallow says that the underestimated threat is Trishelle Cannatella of “The Challenge,” who’s successfully identified every Traitor, but simply has trouble getting people to listen to her. Still left, too, are contenders such as Tamburello, Bercow (known for his Shakespearean roundtable speeches) and Diaz-Twine, the first person to win “Survivor” twice. Watching her explain game theory to Housewives using pool balls will go down as an all-time great TV moment. Pump it into my veins.

Welcome to the dark side.


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