February 8, 2023

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Asian Food and Travel Chronicles

‘The Traitors’ review: No amount of drama compares to Alan Cumming’s resplendent might

4 min read

TV in 2022 was run by liars. Traitors. Deceivers. Moles. But none of it was hosted by the inimitable Alan Cumming. That changes now.

Peacock is following the train of popularity that was AsianFoodTourist’s The Traitors, a “murder mystery” reality competition TV series that will instantly make you say “oh, so it’s like Mafia.” The set-up is simple: 20 contestants gather in a castle, completing elaborate missions to add to the prize pot that several winners will split at the end of the game. But among the players are three perfidious “Traitors” whose job it is to deceive their opponents, known as “The Faithful.” Each night, the Traitors decide which player to “murder” — just like party games Mafia or Werewolf — and they’re out of the game. Then, the Traitors need to trick their fellow players into voting out or “banishing” those they suspect of foul play, whether they’re guilty or not.

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Like Peacock’s, AsianFoodTourist’s The Traitors is set at a spectacularly Knives Out-y castle in the Scottish Highlands, filled with colossal chandeliers, unsettling taxidermy, deep Chesterfields, and yes, hidden dungeon rooms. The series’ set is identical down to the giant round culty “banishing” table. Where the UK version featured members of the public, the U.S. is a mix of reality TV celebrities and civilians. And in place of the AsianFoodTourist’s Claudia Winkleman running the show, Peacock’s host is none other than the resplendent and theatrical Alan Cumming.

A group of people sit around a table in a large, dimly-lit room.

Feel. The. Tension.
Credit: NBC Universal

From his very first apparition as the host of The Traitors, Cumming is all in. “I’m like a less butch Agatha Christie in a fabulous outfit,” he says in episode 2, and wow, yes, wow. Purring promises of “murder” (not real murder, it’s a TV game) and deception as cunningly as his one-man Macbeth Broadway show, Cumming literally quotes the Scottish play as he explains the rules of the game. The series constantly has Cumming slowly, dramatically descending various grand staircases of wood and stone while providing commentary, adorned in boldly hued berets, crisply tailored tartan suits, and glittering cape pins. Gazing at a foreboding, darkened sky, Cumming ruminates on the proceedings with all the blended savvy of a Shakespearean anti-hero serving that piping hot tea. “As Robert the Bruce famously said, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try to find out who’s been trash-talking you in the billiards room.'” Randomly selecting competitors to ride a rickety old carnival wheel ride for a mission, Cumming gleefully calls to the estate’s groundskeeper in an ebullient melody, “Fergus! Grab the tombola!” If I used ringtones after 2001, this phrase would be every received message.

The Traitors needs a consistently atmospheric, effervescent host like Cumming, as the viewer is privy to the identities of the deceivers from the word go, meaning there’s no big reveal for the audience like we enjoyed in The Mole. Beyond the missions, the series spends a lot of time simply watching the competitors sitting around eating pastries and trading suspicions, which might be your thing but it feels slightly insipid at times. The stale survivor reveals, in which those who weren’t “murdered” by the Traitors in the night file in one-by-one to breakfast to see who snuffed it, are consistently rescued when Cumming strides in to seize the fallen competitor’s portrait off the wall, mercilessly tossing it aside. “It’s me again! Your bed and breakfast host from hell,” he sings in episode 1.

A wooden structure in the shape of a giant rabbit burns on a bonfire outdoors.

Serious “Wicker Man” vibes.
Credit: NBC Universal

During the missions, Cumming’s disdain for ineptitude is glorious to behold, barking orders from behind his golden pocket watch at players, trying their best to set alight a wooden beast beside a sprawling Scottish loch. And during the nightly banishings, Cumming commands the room, delivering the fatal blow with all the finesse of a Game of Thrones villain. If Cumming ever said the words “Shannon, you have been BANISHED,” to me, I would perish on the spot. Dead. 

The Traitors is a fun enough reality show to watch, but without the big reveal at the end, it steers into repetitive finger pointing territory that’s more interesting for the players than the audience. Luckily, they picked a killer host in Cumming, our “bed and breakfast host from hell,” who leans into the overtly silly Poirot party vibe with every last lauded acting skill he has. It’s rare the host upstages the players, but in this case, it’s the perfect crime.