[Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for Claim to Fame Season 2, Episode 2, “Don't Get Chummy, You Dummy.”]
Unfortunately, Claim to Fame's second elimination of the season couldn't match the viral fireworks of its first. After last week's epic meltdown saw Tom Hanks' niece become fodder for social media rubbernecking, this week's elimination was far more orderly. It also wasn't really all that surprising. By the time Gabriel correctly guessed that Travis was the son of famed astrophysicist (and Critics Choice Award winner!) Neil deGrasse Tyson, most of the house had already come to that conclusion.
It didn't require some Poirot-esque deductive reasoning, either. Travis just… looked a lot like Neil deGrasse Tyson, and his talent-show skill was reciting the digits of pi. But scratch the surface of this episode and you'll find a house full of savvy sleuths playing the social-strategy angle of this game hard. If last summer's discovery was that Claim to Fame was an unexpectedly engrossing, low-stakes summer series, Season 2 is proving that it's also one of the best social-strategy reality shows on TV.
The proof in the pudding for a reality series is often found in its second year. The bloom of novelty is gone for the audience, but even more crucially, that's when players come in with knowledge of how the first season played out. From competition shows like Survivor to less structured ones like The Real Housewives, the cast members learn how to play the game by watching how it unfolds on TV. Season 2 is when these cast members get savvy to the game in a way the first-season players couldn't. (The upcoming second seasons of the various Traitors franchises will be fascinating to watch on this level.) Claim to Fame's Season 2 cast is already proving themselves to be capable of taking their strategy to the next level, and with just two episodes, the results have been thrilling.
Take Jane, the pink-haired relative of (most likely) a Grammy-winning musician, who is trying to leverage her "mom" energy while playing a fairly ruthless game thus far. This week, she befriends Travis, who won last week's challenge and was thus able to claim a pictogram clue for any of the other players. He'd pulled Shayne's clue — which heavily indicated she was related to Eddie Murphy — but hadn't been able to decipher it. (In fairness to Travis, what 22-year-old would have a frame of reference for the phrase "played Buckwheat"?) Enter Jane, who immediately clocked the reference (come on, Gen X!) and seemed to have built a bond with Travis over this shared information. Whether by his youth or demeanor, Travis had been isolating himself from the house, and Jane lets him cry on her shoulder for a moment. It's sweet, and you couldn't help but imagine that these two might make a formidable pair in the house.
Only, nope, Jane's way more hardcore than that. While not revealing the specifics of the clue, Jane tells the rest of the house about her conversation with Travis, keeping him at the top of everyone's target list. Jane's kindness seems genuine, but she's quite willing to use that mom energy she exudes to play the game.
Meanwhile, there's Chris, whose strong physical resemblance to Donny Osmond is all but confirmed this week when Monay wins the challenge and pulls his clue [puppy + heart + tee (shirt) + eye + doll + seven tee(shirt)s = "Puppy Love" Teen Idol from the '70s]. Fortunately for Chris, Monay has way to decipher the clue. This is also good news for the audience, because Chris is an incredibly fun player to watch operate. He's got Jane clocked, for one thing, knowing she's only giving the group partial information about the clue. He also knows that the group being united to oust Travis presents a ticking-clock problem, since Travis is the only person with a clue about Shayne. Chris needs to find a way to get Travis to share Shayne's clue with him before they guess him out of the game.
Travis, meanwhile, isn't taking this target on his back lightly. With Gabriel the likely candidate for the group to vote into the guesser's spot in order to get Travis out, Travis approaches him directly with the offer of a strategic partnership. His approach is incredibly solid. He leans heavily on the angle that the rest of the group is having Gabriel do their dirty work for them (no one likes to be the one doing the dirty work!); he establishes trust with Gabriel by showing him the clue about Shayne; and in sharing said clue, Travis gives Gabriel someone else to guess at the elimination ceremony.
This kind of strategic scrambling is reminiscent of the best seasons of Survivor, and it's a sign that Claim to Fame's executive producers Chris Coelen and Eric Detwiler are doing everything right. This could easily have been a show that overvalued competitions or loaded itself up with celebrity-adjacent cameos. The silly celebrity stuff is there, but it's window dressing, impeccably presented with exactly the right tone of semi-seriousness by Kevin and Frankie Jonas. The fact that the social strategy with some of these players sometimes goes two or three levels deep — Chris lies to Travis about what he knows about Jane in order to get Travis to tell Gabriel what he told Jane, so that Gabriel will tell Chris Shayne's clue, because Jane clearly lied about Shayne's clue — bodes incredibly well for this season. And it proves that what we have here isn't merely a fun summer trifle, it's a solid reality competition being played by smart players.
Ultimately, Gabriel does guess Travis's relative (and even pronounces "Neil deGrasse Tyson" in correct way, which he'd been struggling with), which also may be an indication that this season's cast is refining the existing strategy. Last season, it was so obvious that "Louise" was Simone Biles' sister that no one wanted to eliminate her, because she was a sure thing to keep in your back pocket. That was a fine strategy, but it meant Louise lasted until the top four. Travis was everyone's sure bet this season, but now they're smart enough to take the chance to get rid of him early and not tempt anyone else to drag him along to the finale.
Social strategy games can live and die by their contestants. Claim to Fame faces a casting challenge right off the bat, as producers are limited to casting only relatives of famous people. Which makes it doubly impressive that Coelen and Detwiler appear to have gone two-for-two when it comes to casting clever, engaging players who are willing — in fact, excited — to play the game and play it hard. The risk of a sophomore slump was high, but thus far, Claim to Fame is passing the Season 2 test with flying colors.
Claim to Fame airs Monday nights at 8:00 PM ET on ABC. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.