It’s dominating ratings (and cultural conversations) around the world: murder-mystery-reality TV phenomenon The Traitors has proven a hit because it taps into our obsession with liars. Why are we so fascinated by deception?
In an era when our TV-watching habits are so fractured, genuine, funny moments seem increasingly rare. So it’s always nice when a show comes on and brings people together, even when that unification involves yelling at our TVs or sending a series of surprised face emojis to our group chats. Such is the case of The Traitors, the hybrid of murder game, mystery and reality show that has become the most binge-watching program on television.
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Original – lLike many popular reality TV formats. – in the Netherlands, The Traitors premiered in the UK in late 2022, and the US edition first aired in early 2023. The show became a word-of-mouth hit and its success has continued to grow . Now halfway through its second season, The Traitors US is now the most watched reality show in the country on all streaming platforms – with figures higher than 75% compared to the first season. The UK edition, which concluded its second season last month, dominated not only the country’s television screens on its prime-time BBC1 (more than double the audience of the first season) but also the cultural conversation. The show also made a splash in Australia and was licensed in many other countries.
At a time when reality shows were beginning to look serious, with interest and audience figures constantly decreasing, The Traitors has breathed new life into the format. Large amounts of betrayal and deceit are its main selling points, and viewers can’t get enough of it.
The show’s concept involves a group of contestants within which a select handful are secretly anointed “traitors.” The rest of the group remains “faithful” and must try to identify the traitors and expel them at a ritual round table. Meanwhile, the traitors gather to “murder” a faithful every night. If the remaining faithful eliminate all the traitors at the end, they split the cash prize. If there are any traitors left, they pocket everything.
Each country puts its own spin on events. The UK and US editions are filmed in the same Scottish castle and involve similar tasks (contestants increase their prize money by winning challenges), but they feel very different. In the UK, the cast is made up of “unknowns”, a brilliant and diverse mix of normal, mostly nice people. The casting is part of the appeal: It feels like a return to the days when reality TV seemed more like a social experiment than an audition for aspiring influencers.
By contrast, the latest American series features big hits from reality TV stars like The Real Housewives, Survivor, Love Island and Big Brother (the first season had a mix of celebrities and unknowns, but now they’ve gotten rid of the muggles entirely ). . These are people who know how to amp it up on camera. As a result, it’s cruel, ruthless, and gloriously camp.
In the UK version, the nastiest thing he got (at least visibly) was criticize someone’s roast dinners. In the US edition, a contestant will cheerfully announce “no one likes you” to someone’s face or, as contestant Kate Chastain did to Rachel Reilly in the first season, tell her that her outfit looks like it came from a costume bin. community theater (Chastain, best known for being a chief steward on the yacht-based reality series Below Deck, caused such convincing mayhem that they brought her back in season two). As host Alan Cumming, who sports a different beret each episode, says: “There are no best friends in this game, unless BFF means backstabbers, phonies and con artists.”
This duplicity is exactly what makes it so appealing to watch, but why are we so fascinated by deception? “One theory is that watching reality shows allows us to immerse ourselves in a hyperreality,” he explains. sociologist danielle lindemann, author of True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us. “It’s like our own life, but more extreme, a fun house where everything is heightened. We all know liars in our lives, but probably not to this extreme.”
A show like Los Traidores offers the viewer a panoramic view of deception. We know who is lying and to whom. We can see what people say behind each other’s backs and the blatant lies they tell each other to their faces. We can also tear our hair out at how they are falling in love. Because we would never be so stupid, good?
In fact, research shows that Humans are much worse at detecting lies than we think. – and The Traitors is proof of that. When the current season of The Traitors US began, the faithful wasted no time putting their deduction skills to use. One contestant, Love Island USA’s Bergie, was immediately suspicious because she had red cheeks and spoke quickly. John Bercow, former British Speaker of the House of Commons, was questioned about labored breathing (which turned out to be asthma). “I’m very good at catching people who lie,” Love Island UK stalwart Ekin Su said in episode four, unaware that she had already been “poisoned” by a traitor and was about to take part in his own funeral. .
Staying too quiet, talking too much, being too confident or not confident enough, a funny look, an inappropriate giggle… all of these can send the faithful on a wild goose chase as they try to track down a traitor. Meanwhile, one of the current Traitors effortlessly mislead people by simply playing dumb and proclaiming, “If there really was a brain, it sure wouldn’t be a dolled-up housewife, honey.”
“We often watch reality shows to feel superior to the people on the shows,” says Lindemann. “We can see what’s happening and we know what’s coming, but the people on the show don’t. It can give us this feeling of smug superiority, like ‘why didn’t you see what they did there?’ “When in reality it’s not that obvious. They don’t have many clues to move forward.”
As a viewer, it’s also fun to watch the liars get caught. “In our own lives we can meet liars who don’t get what they deserve, so we can live vicariously through the people in the program who do,” Lindemann says. Or perhaps we are egging on the traitors, wanting to see how far they can take their deception. “It’s another way of living vicariously,” says Lindemann. “They can commit all the deviant behaviors that we can’t.”
Our fascination with liars is not limited to reality TV. We can’t resist documentaries like The Tinder Swindler (again, we’d like to never fall into those lies ourselves). Then there is the avalanche of dramas based on real life scammersas Inventing Anna, The desertion and The act. Fictional stories about scammers are also irresistible – see the enthusiasm for Netflix’s next Ripleybased on the novel by Patricia Highsmith The talented Mr. Ripley.
But reality TV lends itself exclusively to liars and con artists, and its most seismic moments involve lies and betrayal. As “Scandoval” from Vanderpump Rules – where it was revealed that long-time cast member Tom Sandoval was cheating on his girlfriend with a co-star. Or the (now in hindsight quite picturesque) “Nasty Nick” scandal from the first season of Big Brother UK, where Nick Bateman wrote secret notes to the players to try to influence their voting intentions.
“Deception has always been present in reality shows,” says Lindemann. “People know that reality shows are not 100% real, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying them.”
As reality TV has felt less authentic, it has also become increasingly problematic. Last year, lawyers for current and former cast members of NBC reality shows accused television producers of subjecting their stars to “Grotesque and depraved abuse”. Knowing that shows might be prioritizing good television over the well-being of their cast members can make for an increasingly uncomfortable viewing experience.
So maybe it makes sense that viewers are embracing a show that doesn’t hesitate to encourage contestants to stab each other in the back. In The Traitors, both the contestants and the audience know what to expect. No one can (or at least should) get mad at the game.
In the age of social media, it is difficult to escape dishonesty. Many of us craft a version of ourselves to present to the online world, a version that doesn’t always fully reflect reality. We are comfortable with an element of deception in our lives, but we still want to feel like the good guy.
“We watch reality shows to gawk at deviants, at people who don’t follow society’s rules, and liars fall into that category,” Lindemann says. “One of the pleasures of this is to symbolically distance ourselves from the deviants. Although we are all deviants in our own way, at least we are not like that horrible person. At least we are not traitors.” When we see liars on television, we can comfort ourselves by thinking that we will never be so deceitful in our daily lives. Honest.
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