[Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for Claim to Fame's Season 2 finale episodes, "Disco Balls and Clue Walls" and "Needle in a Haystack."]
Claim to Fame's second season had a tricky first act to follow. Last summer's hit guessing game was a marvel of low-stakes, high-enjoyment reality TV that boasted an incredibly strong cast of likable, game-savvy celebrity relatives. Lightning doesn't usually strike twice, so while Season 2 quickly proved that the show's bona fides as a social strategy game are strong, the cast wasn’t nearly as astute of a group.
You can't expect these contestants to be on point every time they try to guess someone else's celebrity relative — the whole point of the game is that it's hard to do that — but some of this season's guesses have been so wildly off the mark. Chris’ claim to fame may have been to identify for the moms of America, but the flurry of incorrect guesses from his fellow contestants was comically bad. Jane at least had some (misguided) justification for guessing that Chris was related to Elvis Presley. But Elton John? Billy Idol? Guessing two Brits after learning one of Chris' clues was that his celebrity relative was born in Utah did not showt good strategy. The players were similarly off base on some of their other guesses. Olivia was related to Carrot Top because they're both redheads? Monay was related to Steve Harvey because of a fedora?
Entering the two-part season finale, the final four — Chris, Monay, Gabriel, and Karsyn — had very few leads when it came to each other's celebrity relatives. Monay's was a mystery because no one in this house watches enough Curb Your Enthusiasm. Gabriel still had people fooled that he was related to an athlete. The less said about this house's ignorance of '70s teen idols and amazing technicolor dreamcoats, the better. Karsyn was the only one of the final four about whom everyone was on the right track. So, after she didn't win the final four challenge — which revealed at last that Gabriel's relative works in film and TV, not sports — Karsyn’s elimination made for a pretty easy ouster at the end of the first part of the finale.
As for everyone else, Claim to Fame's producers called in some reinforcements. Whether the show's producers sent the eliminated contestants back into the game in order to nudge Chris, Monay, and Gabriel closer to some correct guesses can't really be known. It seemed at times like the returnees were restricted from saying anything too explicit — J.R. at one point essentially tells Gabriel "I'm not saying a name but you're getting warmer." And yet later on, during the haystack competition, Jane definitely tells Chris that the one clue refers to J.B. Smoove, who is Monay's relative.
What the returning contestants do confirm is that some of them would have been a lot better at guessing celebrities than their competitors who ousted them. Jane has a pretty comprehensive pop-culture brain, even if she's not always exactly on target. Shayne, who was eliminated early because her wine-bottle clue made it blazingly obvious that she was related to Eddie Murphy, clocked who Monay's relative was as soon as she heard the Curb Your Enthusiasm of it all. Plus she was seemingly the only person to shoot down bad suggestions about Chris' relative (one of the Rolling Stones? One of the Beatles?) because Utah is not in England.
One person who wasn't any help at all was Carly, Tom Hanks' niece (by marriage! She's from Rita Wilson's side of the family), who threw such a fantastic tantrum when she was eliminated at the end of the season premiere. Our flop queen was back, and it was glorious, as she threw out some truly ridiculous guesses for Chris' relative. Pete Buttigieg? He may be a darling of liberal America, but he wasn't a teen idol in the '70s. Prince (PRINCE?!?!) is famously from Minnesota, not Utah. She later sent Chris down a completely wrong path regarding Monay's relative, suggesting that it's Saturday Night Live alum Jay Pharoah. Carly also brought Monay a rock during the haystack competition and said it was a clue. Please bring Carly back next season.
That final competition — where Chris, Gabriel, and Monay each drafted a team of eliminated players and then searched through hay bales for items that were a clue to every player's claim to fame — was a masterstroke from the Claim to Fame producers. It required the final three to work on multiple levels of strategy, from picking the right team, to deciphering which clues belonged to which players, and most importantly deciding how secretive to be about their own clues. Chris saw the knockoff Donnie & Marie lunchbox and knew it was his clue, so he tried to hide it. But Monay clocked him, and it confirmed Donny Osmond for her. Meanwhile, the turban on the mannequin head only solidified Monay's guess of Nick Cannon for Gabriel.
One of the things Claim to Fame excels at as a game is the way it puts multiple objectives into every competition and strategy decision. Chris and Gabriel both needed to find their own clues to win the hay bale competition, but they also had to be concerned about letting the other players see their clue. Gabriel revealed the turban clue as his, and he won the competition, putting him in the position to dictate the final two guesses. Chris revealed his lunch box, but because he didn't win the competition, it was a much bigger liability for him.
That liability ended up costing Chris the game, as Monay was able to finally guess Donny Osmond as his claim to fame at the final three guess-off. Monay came on strong at the end and was probably the savviest player of the final three. But winning the final challenge gave Gabriel more power than could be overcome. In a flashback to an earlier conversation, we see JR tell Gabriel that Monay's Claim to Fame was on the same show as his own CTF (Real Husbands of Hollywood). That helped all of the other clues for Monay click into place, and Gabriel was able to successfully guess J.B. Smoove.
Was Gabriel always on top of the sleuthing this season? No. Did he need a whole episode and two crossed fingers to make sure he said "Neil deGrasse Tyson" right? Yes. But he played a brilliant social strategy game, building tight alliances with both Chris and Monay along the way. He won the most competitions, including the most important one at the end. And not for nothing, but he was the only person to correctly throw out Joseph from the Bible in connection to the amazing technicolor dreamcoat that was part of one of the Donny Osmond clues (even if he wasn't able to connect the former to the latter). For that alone, it is good and right that Gabriel won.
In its second season, Claim to Fame proved that it was a solid strategy game in its own right. This was never more true than when its players were riding the struggle bus, throwing out absurd guesses about Chris' claim to fame and spending way too many episodes assuming Gabriel was related to a football player or Monay was related to Stave Harvey. While the guessing was bad, the social strategy picked up the slack. Chris seemed to have never watched a TV show in his life, but he was able to rely on strategic partnerships with Gabriel and Karsyn to get him through. Monay shared information with the right people at the right time. Gabriel's friendly personality helped him ingratiate himself into the two most important partnerships of the game with Chris and Monay.
But if the Season 2 finale proved anything, it's that this is a show that can charm you on many levels. The game is tense, challenging, and multi-layered, and for the second season in a row, the winner was a hugely likable person with a satisfying story arc. The celebrity reveals throughout the season were almost always quite moving, in particular Hugo's shout-out to his ailing grandfather, Jimmy Carter, and JR being moved to tears by his brother, Lil Nas X. The hosts were once again excellent, even if Kevin Jonas had to bail on a few episodes for other commitments. Franklin Jonas did just fine on his own, though the finale reminded us that these two are even better in tandem.
Claim to Fame is two-for-two now. ABC would be silly to deny the show a third season. As long as there are celebrities in Hollywood, those celebrities will have relatives, creating an endless casting pool for one of TV's best reality shows.
Claim to Fame Season 2 is streaming on Hulu. 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.