I was raised on Game Show Network—specifically during that period when the network wasn’t sure if it wanted to reboot old shows or just show reruns of the beloved programs of yesteryear.
I spent my summers invested in the latter. Match Game and What’s My Line? were my favorites because they came preloaded with a cast of characters: big personalities like Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly. I used to think about how fun it would be to grow up in the ’70s and riff with Brett over our matching answers.
No attempts at rebooting these classics could recreate the magic of those old series, and then soon after, around the turn of the millennium, the literal game shifted entirely.
You had the emergence of Survivor and Big Brother and The Bachelor, and the reality TV era was birthed. The OGs cleared the way, then came the observational ones like the Real Housewives franchises, followed by spin-offs of those, and now we’re over 20 years deep into the revolution and drowning in reality TV. Standing out is difficult. Making a legitimate impression is even harder. But The Traitors—Peacock’s adaptation of the conniving U.K. series—has managed to do it, thanks in no small part to the people playing it.
The premise of The Traitors is as follows: you have a group of 20 contestants who come into a Scottish mansion, tasked with identifying which three of their fellow contestants are “murdering” the others. The way that it deviates from the U.K. version is that Peacock has gone through the reality TV oeuvre and plucked out a few favorites to compete alongside the “normal” lot. Big Brother’s Rachel Reilly and Cody Calafiore are in the mix, along with Survivor’s Cirie Fields and Stephenie LaGrossa, Real Housewives’ Brandi Glanville, and The Bachelor’s Arie Luyendyk Jr.
What the show delivers is a real-life game of Clue, with Calafiore, Fields, and newcomer Christian De La Torre in the murderer positions, scheming and twisting the minds of fellow contestants in hopes of picking them off one by one. Whoever survives eventually takes home a six-figure cash prize.
After a quarter century of reality TV shows, The Traitors is a welcomed entry, considering that lately we’ve been dabbling in series’ like The Masked Singer, where a panel of judges including Jenny McCarthy guess earnestly that Barack Obama is moonlighting as a singer inside a “Squiggly Monster” costume. It’s bleak out here. But The Traitors is more akin to an interactive whodunnit. And what really sells the series, in my opinion, are the personalities.
We’re deep enough into the reality TV era that a lot of that “reality TV show star” stigma has faded. Some of these people have been on our TVs for decades now.
I mean, in 2005, Cirie Fields was a nurse in Connecticut. Jump forward 18 years and four seasons of Survivor, and she’s regarded as one of the best players to have played the game. Almost 15 years ago, Rachel Reilly was a waitress with a chemistry degree who has since been on eight different seasons of five different reality shows. Shows like The Challenge and The Traitors have taken stock of the characters from the past 25 years and identified how much of a staple they’ve become in pop culture.
As a result, we have… almost a reunion to catch up with the people who’ve defined the genre, from the competitive giants like Survivor and The Bachelor to the Bravo universe’s Brandi Glanville, and even Below Deck’s Kate Chastain begrudgingly joining the cast.
While I was watching it, it dawned on me that these people are the new crop of old standbys. Knowing good and well that Brett Somers and Paul Lynde are doing somersaults in their graves, the stars of reality TV have come to occupy that space. I can’t imagine sharing jokes with Rachel Reilly on a sound stage, but there’s something equally alluring about being backstabbed by her. Reality TV has created the excitement to play among this pseudo-celebrities, and The Traitors brings that to life.
Admittedly, 2023 is a hell of a lot more demanding for its TV stars than 1979 was. The Traitors is far more grueling than Match Game ever was (unless I missed an episode where Richard Dawson pushed a barrel worth $5,000 up a hill to meet Gene Rayburn). But that’s just how the era goes now.
Reality TV has trudged its way forward becoming a regular staple in our TV library, and The Traitors has shown up to celebrate the pieces of reality TV that bring us back every season: extreme stunts, high money stakes, and people you’d love to be murdered by.