a most delicious feast of grinning and treacherous murderers

It is devilishly complicated to invent an entertainment format. Often a new idea will take on the wicked guise of a Frankenstein monster, with random body parts from old programs sewn into a slab. Most recently, Unbreakable grimly screwed up Mr. and Mrs. in It’s a Knockout, while the ill-conceived Make Me Prime Minister welded up The Apprentice in The Thick of It.

Sometimes it’s safer to buy a road-tested hit from abroad. the traitors (BBC One) comes from the Netherlands, which also exported to Big Brother (the Dutch original won the prestigious Rose D’Or on Monday). His sadistic idea is to place a motley crew in one place, in this case, a Hogwarty castle in the Highlands, and gradually turn them against each other. Claudia Winkleman, in tweed and leggings, presides.

Team tasks, prize money, and ritual eliminations are all familiar elements. As well as the good spirit of the participants. When they first met, instinctively, being social animals, they made friends. But this game has cynical bones. It does not reward group bonding but mistrust. Among them, three eponymous traitors were soon named to sow discord among the rest, the so-called faithful.

As one of those fussy board games with too many rules, it’s not a clean or entirely logical concept. But when you strip away all the extravagant persiflage and pompous telegothic trappings, what you’re left with is a more elegant (if demoralizing) study of human behavior.

The cast of self-selected braggarts who want to be in this sort of thing, plus a token grandmother, have been shrewdly selected. The contestants soon learned that it doesn’t necessarily pay to be an archetype: a super nice guy, a haughty loner, and an outgoing young gobby all paid the ultimate price for being themselves.

The traitors, revealed to viewers and to each other at the end of the first episode, are delusional Slytherins, light-hearted schemers who are naturals at manipulation. It’s just a little giveaway to reveal that one is a real estate agent, another is a fundraiser. The most convincing is a petite Scottish-Asian business student named Alyssa, whose terrifying superpower hides in plain sight.

I identify as someone who avoids getting sucked into every TV elimination contest, but I might not resist this one. Episode one passed a basic sniff test: I snuck right into the next episode (the first three of 12 are on iPlayer) to see who got eliminated first. Unfortunately, it was the one with the best one-liners. You have to hope this isn’t a potential weakness of a cutthroat format: boring wins.

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