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Pitting Real Housewives against Survivor villains, The Traitors is reality TV at its best

Season 2 of the Peacock series has some of the worst people you know fail a whodunit.

A large group of people sit around a circular table designed to resemble a large compass.
The Traitors has a very big table where all the backstabbing happens!
Euan Cherry/Peacock
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

There are some slight spoilers regarding the first three episodes of The Traitors season two. The first four episodes of The Traitors are streaming on Peacock.

Comic book devotees have the Avengers. Sports geeks have All-Star Games. People who enjoy music (and drugs and having big bank accounts) have Coachella.

Magic happens when you bring fan favorites together.

And for reality television show fans, that magic is the second season of The Traitors.

Hailing from Survivor, The Bachelor, Big Brother, Real Housewives of Atlanta, and more, some of the most popular and chaotic reality TV personalities have assembled and descended upon Peacock’s murder mystery contest, giving us the best TV competition in this very young year. Featuring backstabbing, poisoned chalices, possibly fake asthma, elaborate faux-funeral attire, clueless strategizing, more clueless strategizing, and a potential $250,000 grand prize, Traitors offers everything a fan could ever want in a reality TV competition.

But most of all, Traitors offers the opportunity to watch Bravolebs, Real World mainstays, and even a Dancing With the Stars dancer go head-to-head in this silly game. And it helps that few of them are any good at it.

The Traitors’ strength is its casting department

Traitors’ magic formula is taking a bunch of television stars that fans may know, introducing them to other television stars they may not fully know, and having them play a game that everyone knows.

The actual game is based on Werewolf or Mafia, social deduction contests where players vote off one of their own round by round in the hope of catching a smaller, hidden collection of players who are trying to “kill” the rest of the group. In Peacock form, each round has players (known as “Faithfuls”) voting to banish a Traitor, and Traitors eliminating Faithfuls to cause chaos and confusion. If only Faithfuls make it to the finale, they win the prize money, but if a Traitor or two sneaks into their ranks, then the Traitor(s) take it all. Traitors try to stay hidden, Faithfuls get caught up in the crossfire, and the last Faithfuls or Traitors standing win!

Unlike last season, where casting directors sprinkled regular people into the game, everyone on this chapter of Traitors is either a reality show contestant or a low-level celebrity (namely, a former British MP, a professional boxer, and Michael Jordan’s fashion designer son). The Real Housewives, Survivor, Big Brother, and The Challenge make up most of the cast members, and the different types of participants in each of those shows create memorable TV. There’s no real-life situation in which an MTV Challenge meathead and a glamorous Housewife would attempt to plot together, so I’m thankful Traitors exists.

Three women sit at a table decorated with ferns, flowers, and candlesticks.
Phaedra Parks (center) is one of the best things about The Traitors.
Euan Cherry/Peacock

At one point, Phaedra Parks (Real Housewives of Atlanta/Married to Medicine) gives C.T. Tamburello (The Challenge) the secret lowdown on each contestant, specifically explaining to him that Larsa Pippen (Real Housewives of Miami) is NBA player Scottie Pippen’s ex-wife and that she’s dating fellow cast member Marcus Jordan, the son of Scottie’s very successful and famous teammate on the Chicago Bulls.

“Child, wake up and smell the coffee,” Parks tells him. She’s both building a gossip bond and trying to sow some seeds of discontent in this burly man. She’s implying that Pippen and her extremely rich boyfriend are here as a team and that they don’t need the money. Parks is flagging and flailing more than the airport traffic crew at Los Angeles International Airport. Unfortunately, this flagrant maneuvering seems all for naught.

“Oh,” C.T. replies, staring at Pippen’s portrait and back at Parks with vacant eyes. He has no follow-up questions. He did not smell the coffee. He’s not even sure what’s being brewed. Some cast members aren’t cast for being masterminds, and that’s okay.

Smashing all these reality TV personalities into Traitors also creates a fascinating premise: When you pit cast members from competition, talent, and lifestyle reality shows against each other, who is actually the most cutthroat? And who are the most gullible?

In the first season, Survivor alum Cirie Fields blazed through the game as a Traitor with no one even suspecting that she was behind all the manipulation and murderings. Considering Survivor touts itself as a show where players have to scheme and vote each other out every tribal council, it seemed like an oversight not to suspect Fields of any subterfuge. Fields’s victory would point to this season’s Survivors, former winners Parvati Shallow and Sandra Diaz-Twine, to follow in her footsteps.

But everyone else on the show knows — or will if they talk to Parks — that Shallow and Diaz-Twine won, which puts a target on their backs. Fans of both then get to see how Shallow and Diaz-Twine fine-tune their Survivor strategizing in an attempt to gain their fellow Faithfuls’ trust.

You could apply the same kind of psychological analysis to the Real Housewives. These women have spent years on TV creating chaos and clashing for the cameras. Real Housewives know that their shows are about performing friendships for the cameras. With these skills, it wouldn’t be that far-fetched for a Real Housewife to excel through great social gameplay and sneak into the finale.

Plucking these players away from their respective franchises also changes the way we perceive them. On the past couple of seasons of Real Housewives of Miami, Pippen has seemed like a brainless menace, at one point interrogating a costar who was diagnosed with breast cancer, “Who told you?”

Three women sit at a table laden with candlesticks, decorative glass bottles, and foliage. They wear serious expressions.
Larsa Pippen (left) claims she is really good at spotting Traitors because she has an acute sense of hearing!
Euan Cherry/Peacock

Apparently, no one escapes Larsa Pippen’s skepticism. Not even oncologists.

But here on The Traitors, Pippen becomes a lovable hero who swears she has superhuman hearing (which she says makes Traitors easier to spot) and doesn’t trust former Big Brother winner Dan Gheesling because he’s quiet. Though it’s unclear how well Pippen hears things, or why she thinks quiet people are untrustworthy, she’s right about Gheesling being a Traitor. The only question is whether she’ll be able to convince her fellow Faithfuls to vote him out. They already believe in her superhuman sonar, so why not?

This season of The Traitors is better than last season

I was a huge fan of Traitors’ first season but came away feeling like the game was too tilted in Traitors’ favor. It’s more advantageous to be a Traitor than a Faithful, and far easier to go further in the game.

Other than the Traitors themselves, no one knows the exact number of Traitors in the game, and only the Traitors know everyone’s role, making their cast mates easier to observe. The Traitors are also never at risk of being murdered — only banished — which means they only have to worry about 50 percent of the eliminations. Meanwhile, there’s no way for Faithfuls to obtain any kind of protection.

The advantages to being a Traitor were so numerous, it was a neat little analogy for reality show incentives, since behaving badly on most of these shows is almost always a good idea.

In this installment, the game is still largely tilted in the Traitors’ favor, but it introduces partial immunity via a concept called “shields,” which protect the Faithful from being murdered. Shield-wielders can still be voted out by the group, but Traitors can’t get rid of them.

Another balancing effort going into this season is at the beginning of the game, the two initial traitors — Parks and Gheesling — recruit Shallow as a third. In confessionals, both say they picked Shallow because she’d help them get to the end, but also admit Shallow’s reputation as a ruthless gameplayer on Survivor makes her a bigger target. Whether they’ll be able to control Shallow is going to be a lingering question, as is whether Shallow will show them any loyalty. The Traitors on the first season largely got along, but there seems to be more friction and the possibility of a Traitor-on-Traitor betrayal this time around.

Shallow stands outside beside a stone pillar, wearing a gray cloak, black leather sleeves, a black headband, and a black necktie.
Parvati Shallow won Survivor by backstabbing all the men in her season. I hope she wins Traitors.
Euan Cherry/Peacock

Perhaps the tweaks were made because of how comically awful the Faithfuls were at picking out Traitors in season one. Faithfuls seemingly could not muster the brain power to separate the idea that an abrasive person doesn’t necessarily mean a bad person and therefore a Traitor whom they couldn’t trust. They would continually vote to banish Below Deck alum Kate Chastain (who will return this season) because they didn’t like her, making Chastain more and more irritated at her fellow Faithfuls, and the cycle would continue as Faithfuls were picked off one by one.

Traitors are never going to present as Traitors! That’s the point of the show! The entire premise of a “traitor” is that someone back in the day was so surprised that they were betrayed that they made up a whole word for it! The Traitors isn’t called OBVIOUS VILLAIN!

Reality television competitions tend to become more predictable the longer they go on. Competitors eventually figure out the winning strategies and how to avoid losing ones. I have to believe that eventually, players will figure out Traitors. But contestants coming in with bulletproof strategies would eliminate the fun, chaotic unpredictability that the game needs.

Thankfully, it’s safe for now.

This delightful second season and its brilliant cast are still bumbling through the competition, stabbing the wrong people in the back and lucking into trusting the right ones. Everyone — Traitors, Faithfuls, Housewives, Survivors, and everybody in between — is still figuring out the game as they go along, and we’re lucky to watch it all unfold.

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