Why are so many people obsessed with ‘The Traitors’? The reality TV phenomenon, explained.

If there’s one show currently dominating the cultural conversation, it’s The Traitors.

Since the Peacock series launched its second season on Jan. 12, the Mafia-style murder mystery competition — which pits well-known reality stars against one another in an opulent Scottish castle for a $250,000 prize — has become a full-blown phenomenon.

The streaming numbers prove it. The Traitors’ Season 2 premiere saw a 75% increase in streaming reach compared wth the first installment in 2023, according to Peacock, and became the streaming service’s most-watched reality series debut in its first five days.

NBC slotted a special airing of the sophomore season’s premiere on Jan. 22, where it drew 1.4 million viewers. Soon after, The Traitors was renewed for a third season. The franchise’s sudden rise in popularity isn’t lost on the creative team.

“The bar is set pretty high with Season 2,” The Traitors executive producer Sam Rees-Jones said at the Television Critics Association press tour on Feb. 14.

What is the show about?

Based on the Dutch game show De Verraders, the American version stays loyal to the original format. Hosted by Scottish actor Alan Cumming, The Traitors follows a group of contestants competing to win a cash prize worth upwards of $250,000.

Picked by Cumming on Day 1, a handful of competitors secretly play the game as “Traitors,” who stand to win a bigger share of the pot if they sabotage and eliminate the other contestants, collectively known as the “Faithful,” from the competition. It’s up to the Faithful to successfully identify the Traitors and banish them by voting them out every night at the Round Table, The Traitors’ version of Survivor’s Tribal Council. By the same token, the Traitors can decide who to “murder,” with that person immediately out of the competition.

If all of the players left in the game are Faithful, the money is divided up equally. If any of the Traitors remain, all the money goes to them. A few quirks are thrown in to complicate matters, from immunity shields to the potential recruitment of new Traitors over the course of the game.

There have been more than a dozen international editions of The Traitors, including the popular U.K. and Australian versions. Many have stayed faithful to the original concept. If there are any differences, it’s often in the approach to casting. The U.K. competition, for instance, exclusively features everyday people, while the U.S. edition primarily relies on established public figures, reality stars and personalities who have found some level of fame.

How was Season 1 received?

All 10 episodes of The Traitors’ first season dropped at once on Jan. 12, 2023, on Peacock, with a reunion episode premiering more than six weeks later. The cast was a mix of civilians and former reality stars, creating a unique dynamic among the competitive field of 20.

Among the notable names that competed were Brandi Glanville (The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), Rachel Reilly (Big Brother), Cody Calafiore (Big Brother), Kate Chastain (Below Deck), Arie Luyendyk Jr. (The Bachelor franchise), Kyle Cooke (Summer House), Reza Farahan (Shahs of Sunset), Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte and eventual winner Cirie Fields (Survivor).

The Traitors Season 1 cast included. from left, Rachel Reilly, Shelbe Rodriguez, Robert

The Traitors Season 1 cast included, from left, Rachel Reilly, Shelbe Rodriguez, Robert “Bam” Nieves, Arie Luyendyk Jr., Christian De La Torre, Kyle Cook, Amanada Clark, Reza Farahan and Azra Valani. (Euan Cherry/Peacock via Getty Images)

The season was a crowd-pleasing critical success, boasting a 95% approval rating among critics and an equally impressive 82% among viewers, according to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Cumming’s extravagant wardrobes, Scottish cheekiness and scenery-chewing antics were lauded by fans and critics alike. NPR praised The Traitors’ first season for embracing the clichés of the reality genre, describing it as “goofy, hyperdramatic, suspenseful and pretty entertaining.”

If there was a breakout star from Season 1, it’d easily be chaos agent Chastain, whose snarky zingers, no-nonsense approach and feuds with Reilly made her a standout — so much so that many called the former Below Deck star “reality TV gold.”

How is Season 2 different?

Peacock went with a weekly episodic rollout instead of a binge drop. The first three episodes were released together on Jan. 12, with subsequent episodes dropping every Thursday at 9 p.m. ET to incentivize primetime streaming.

Season 2’s cast was also made up entirely of celebrities, the majority of whom are reality TV greats from Bravo franchises (Real Housewives, Shahs of Sunset, Married to Medicine), strategy competitions (Big Brother, Survivor), dating shows (The Bachelor, Love Island) and slice-of-life experiments (The Real World, Bling Empire). The competitors include Peter Weber, Phaedra Parks, Johnny “Bananas” Devananzio, Dan Gheesling, Janelle Pierzina, Parvati Shallow, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Chris “CT” Tamburello, Sheree Whitfield, Larsa Pippen, Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Chastain, who was reinserted into the game for a second go at the prize, among others.

A scene from The Traitors Season 2.

A scene from The Traitors Season 2. (Euan Cherry/Peacock via Getty Images)

“It’s a very, very crowded market here, and NBC, Peacock all thought that it would be helpful … to have people that were well known. And we thought it worked,” executive producer Stephen Lambert said at the Television Critics Association press tour.

Mixing celebrities with ordinary people in Season 1 “didn’t seem to be the best thing,” he said. “It felt slightly awkward.”

Thus far, the season has been dominated by several storylines: Weber outsmarting Big Brother mastermind Gheesling and playing a key role in his downfall, Parks’s cunning and masterful gameplay and after the most recent episode, Chastain’s new status as a Traitor alongside Parks.

Why has it gotten so popular now?

Its week-to-week episodic drops, an interesting and likable celebrity cast and impressive production value are among several factors that explain why The Traitors has captured the pop culture zeitgeist. It also helps that international formats are readily available on streaming.

“Releasing it weekly has really helped it gain traction,” Andy Dehnart, editor at Reality Blurred, told Yahoo Entertainment. “Whereas last season, all the episodes were out and people were done with it in a day or a weekend. This is benefiting it. You’re growing momentum.”

Myles McNutt, associate professor of media studies at Old Dominion University and editor of Episodic Medium, said having episode drops in primetime “has really built a social conversation, where if you’re not on watching that episode [when] they release it on Thursdays, you’re going to get spoiled on what’s going on with Phaedra.”

It’s an acknowledgement of the dynamic relationship between communal viewing and real-time engagement that “is so central to the [reality] genre,” he told Yahoo Entertainment. “That still has such power in this industry. They’re really harnessing that with the choice to release the show week to week.”

Assembling a cast of personalities, many with preexisting tension (see: Shallow and Diaz-Twine’s Survivor beef) or relationships, only fuels the dramatics from the get-go and all but guarantees genuine investment from the audience.

“When they had their first interaction in the mansion, it was immediately story,” McNutt said of the Survivor winners’ awkward initial meeting at the Traitors castle. “All those narratives, all those layers give [the show] so much of a head start — that they’re not starting from scratch trying to see how these characters interact with each other. That’s a powerful tool that hooks people sooner.”

From left, Chris

Chris “C.T.” Tamburello, Phaedra Parks, Peter Weber, Trishelle Cannatella in The Traitors. (Euan Cherry/Peacock via Getty Images)

It also leads to unexpected developments and creates unique dynamics among the players.

“[It’s] a fascinating opportunity to see people playing a brand-new game. And then things happen that are completely unexpected,” Dehnart said. “A Bachelor effectively orchestrating the downfall of a Big Brother winner is not something that I would have predicted coming into this season. That’s made for pretty great television.”

New episodes of The Traitors drop Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on Peacock.

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