The Traitors is arbitrary and brutal, like January – give me more of it

The cliffhanger-loving BBC reality show is an addictive new year distraction that makes its viewers wait

Two strangers – a man and a woman – meet on an otherwise empty railway station platform somewhere in the Scottish Highlands. They are excited, self-conscious, defensive. Soon, others join them. Preceded by cloak-swept montages of slow-motion walking and a doomy Claudia Winkleman voiceover about deception and betrayal, it’s a standard reality television opening, easy to be jaded by.

So why, by the time we switched to drone shots of a steam train whisking these curious volunteers over the Glenfinnan Viaduct to the scene of their battle (a 19th-century castle), had I searched how to connect to the featured rail route and mentally superimposed a dark-green hood on my head?

The Traitors – a BBC role-playing series based on Dutch format De Verraders – is brilliant TV, as anyone who has been royally sucked into it and is currently languishing in the drab waiting period between episodes three and four will know.

That’s the main reason. Timing is the other. Rather than cramming The Traitors into the hectic pre-Christmas weeks, as it did with its first run, the BBC has given The Traitors the honour of a January home.


It settled on a cruel pattern of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday slots, followed by no castle action at all for four days, but it’s a January slot nonetheless: The Apprentice, an old reliable, has been bumped to February to clear the path for The Traitors’ total of 12 episodes, and that wouldn’t have happened if season one hadn’t been a massive hit.

I missed it, so season two arrives in my life as a freshly upholstered novelty, full of twists, tweedy separates and gameshow tasks that seem more like initiation rituals. “Bit extreme, isn’t it?” says one contestant, Meg, as all 22 are tied to poles by a squad of unsmiling “guards”. Apparently not.

Produced for the BBC by serial makers of brilliant TV, Studio Lambert – the British company that created Gogglebox and was last seen delivering mass competition spin-off Squid Game: The Challenge to Netflix – The Traitors is theatrically absurd. “You’re currently sharing marmalade with murderers,” Winkleman declares, safe in the knowledge she can’t be bumped off.

The Traitors’ secret is that it’s an expertly edited blend of murder-mystery game, in which the “Faithful” outnumber the selected “Traitors”, and race-against-time, divide-and-conquer missions where people pretend to be working together as a team in the name of boosting the overall prize pot. Insert your own corporate workplace metaphors here.

As 2024 rattled into existence, I didn’t know what I was in the mood for, distraction-wise, but it obviously had to be some ridiculous diversion. This is a month with five Mondays in it, though not quite as many minutes of sunlight. When your Christmas tree has been de-decorated but is still standing there like antimatter, Sky Cinema Dystopia is not the answer. “Queen” Diane, a retired teacher from Northern Ireland, is the answer.

Diane, a frightening cross between Jessica Fletcher and Anna Wintour, almost immediately makes one of the just-recruited Traitors sweat out a confession. “You’re very good at observing. I watched you last night,” she pointedly tells another contestant. Observant or not, he swiftly becomes the first to be “murdered” via sealed envelope.

“My mother is on The Traitors. My mother is on The Traitors. My mother is on The Traitors. She’s bonkers. I’m scared,” posted Bangor-born actor Kerr Logan, hilariously adding some off-screen intrigue.

Diane is a Faithful, but adept at secrecy. Unbeknown to the rest of the cast, another son, Ross, is also a contestant on the show. He announces his mother can’t make a decent Sunday roast. Unwavering, she says he should come round to hers and she’ll sort him out with one. Diane and Ross deserve Golden Globes for this exchange. Alas, Diane’s future now hangs in the balance, her alertness having triggered the collective suspicion of the group, who must vote out who they think is a Traitor at the end of each episode.

The casting of the show is bettered only by the sheer speed with which the contestants illogically ascribe motives, virtues and vices to one another, as if being deemed a Faithful or tapped on the shoulder to become a Traitor can be directly attributed to their innate characters, rather than decisions made by the producers. The actual Traitors are a back-stabbing lot, for sure, but this is a game where anyone can lie, anyone can accuse people they only just met of having “changed” and anyone can triple-bluff their way to the cash.

Maybe that’s why it works now. The world is rife with disinformation, deceit and forces as sinister as they are powerful. A television show that trades in these concepts becomes a coping mechanism for dealing with this fact, the same way that horror films provide safe outlets for exploring our worst fears.

Granted, the first episodes of The Traitors clashed with a much more important show going out on ITV (and Virgin Media Television). Written by Gwyneth Hughes, the four-part drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office has propelled an astonishingly large miscarriage of justice to the top of news media and fraud investigators’ agendas, where it belongs, and will be studied in universities for decades. I first read about the scandal five years ago, but was shocked and enraged all over again by the gobsmacking sequence of events it depicted, albeit with a reassuring sprinkle of quiet heroism.

But sometimes we need a break from anger and real-life despair. Sometimes we just need something silly, arbitrary and accessorised with tartan, something that prompts us to say “well, everything is clearly terrible, but at least that’s on tonight”. Some shows just have their moment: The Traitors is in the midst of its one. It’s irrational and brutal, like January. More, please.