If you’ve been watching the second series of The Traitors, which is now drawing towards its highly anticipated finale, you will have been playing your part in the discourse surrounding the year’s most talked-about entertainment show. While the loss of the element of surprise may have damaged the edge-of-seat impact of the that the first series had, the backstabbing, manipulative vigour of it all is still thrilling. Nice guys finish last, and the most creatively vicious and conniving – presumably Harry, but who knows – will romp to victory.
It’s all fascinating water-cooler television, and the healthy viewing figures (four million for the recent episode showing the poisoning of Diane, leading to “the worst hangover in history”) suggest that there has been no slackening of interest. At a time when very little on conventional TV achieves this kind of cut-through, television executives will be breathing a sigh of relief into their own (hopefully non-toxic) glasses of fizz. Yet amidst the celebrations, the executives should remember that the show’s origins lie in an even more fascinating story than anything going on in Ardross Castle.
There are several different versions of The Traitors airing worldwide at the moment, all of which have been spun off from the original Dutch series, De Verraders, which first screened in 2021. Everywhere from Greece to the United States has their own version, all of which are subtly tweaked for the local market – the American series, for instance, is hosted by a smirking Alan Cumming and features contestants who have already become known for their appearances on other reality shows. All are licensed and reasonably faithful to the original format. With one inevitable exception: the bootleg Russian version of The Traitors, which has been renamed Heirs and Pretenders, and first screened in the country towards the end of 2022.
Its host Lyasan Utiasheva, a well-known gymnast and socialite devoid of Claudia Winkleman’s charm, made some effort to extol the virtues of the show. “Like any woman, I love mysticism and believe in it,” she said before the show aired. “And I also believe that the show will demonstrate that Russia is capable of producing interesting, masterful projects of a global level… I promise you that it will be very beautiful and mysterious.”
Others were less impressed. Peter van der Vorst, the director of the Dutch channel RTL Nederland that airs the show in the Netherlands, announced that the Russian version was unlicensed and a straightforward rip-off of the existing format, but that no attempt had been made to acquire the rights. Nonetheless, he accepted that there was little that could be done, sighing that Russia was “a rogue state” and that, after all, a show made without any oversight was unlikely to be as competent as the others franchised around the world.
Van der Vorst was correct. If you watch the first episode of the Russian version of The Traitors, it is obvious that coherence and narrative ingenuity are not its priority, and instead that it is little more than a grab-bag of ideas that were thrown together without any understanding of what had made the original show such a success. Lowlights include characters refusing to die because they claim that the word “leave” on their murder card was not grammatically correct, banished Traitors returning to the show apparently at random and one unfairly eliminated character being eliminated once again because they were so unpopular.
Little wonder that many of the contestants would either feign illness rather than participate in any of the challenges, or, in extremis, would vote for themselves to be banished, thus ending the ordeal that they were participating in. As one bemused fan wrote: “a complete shambles doesn’t even begin to describe this.”
Yet there’s no reason why the show had to be so dire. After all, Russia is the country that invented a game called Werewolf, which – along with a 17th century massacre that took place off the coast of Australia – is one of the major influences behind The Traitors. Werewolf – also known as Mafia – is, for the uninitiated, a parlour game in which two sets of participants are pitted against one another, those in the know (the werewolves) and the clueless (the villagers).
The two phases of the game are set at night, when the werewolves attempt to murder the villagers, and during the day, when the survivors have to work out who is a werewolf and who is merely an innocent victim. As with The Traitors, it’s a game of double bluff, manipulation and skill, and it has been hugely popular ever since it was invented, almost by accident, by a young Russian psychology student named Dimitry Davidoff in 1987.
Davidoff, who moonlighted as a tutor of high school pupils, came up with the idea of dividing his charges into two groups. In order to show the practical aspects of the psychological theories that he was explaining to them, he gave one group important information, and withheld it from the others, in an attempt to see what impact that it had on their minds, or, in his words “the uninformed majority versus the informed minority”.
“Back then I wasn’t trying to create a game per se,” he said, but the students responded to it with great excitement. After finessing the game further, Davidoff introduced it to his friends, and, within a matter of a few weeks, it had spread throughout colleges and schools in Soviet Russia. Its addictive qualities lay in its simplicity, as well as its cynicism about human nature: the fewer people you trust, the less exposed you are for inevitable betrayal.
As befits a game that majors in deception and manipulation, it soon became popular at the highest levels of Big Tech, which used the activity as a form of especially intense networking. Wired magazine recounted how, in 2008, the likes of Jimmy Wales, the Wikipedia founder, and one of Google’s heads of engineering, Brian Fitzpatrick, came together to play the game for what would become an especially tense and cathartic session. One member of the group become so overwhelmed by the experience that he broke down, screaming, and began to throw pretzels at the others.
Yet Wales later described the experience as “a work of art…a thing of beauty” and said of his own participation that “I was sure of only three things. One, I was not a werewolf. Two, one of these bastards was an amazing liar. And three, the other guy was a total moron. I just couldn’t figure out which was which.”
Perhaps mindful of the ways in which high-profile Russian citizens can often find themselves meeting with fatal accidents if they dare to say anything out of line, Davidoff soon left for the United States (which he sardonically described as “the perfect Soviet Union” in 1991) and has never made a vast amount of money out of the game he created, instead remaining a deeply private figure who leads a quiet life a world away from the opulence of the tech mavens who now play Werewolf religiously.
He has watched the way that his game has become a phenomenon with wry amusement, refusing to give conventional interviews – when he spoke to Wired, it was in the context of a World of Warcraft game – and being either unable or unwilling to offer failsafe strategies for victory. One of the few observations that he has been happy to make is that “Lying, and getting caught in a lie, is extraordinarily dangerous. The best players lie only when absolutely necessary and otherwise stretch the truth as much as possible. Never lie unless you’re sure nobody will notice.”
Werewolf, Mafia or whatever name it’s best known by, remains a phenomenon, all thanks to its central belief that when people are out for themselves, they will prosper, and if they attempt to help their fellows, they will fail. Bracingly cynical? Sure. But it certainly makes for a fascinating, endlessly watchable television.