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Claim to Fame Was This Summer's Best Show (Hear Me Out)

How a throwaway ABC reality series about celebrity relatives became the season's most satisfying show.
  • Photos: ABC
    Photos: ABC

    It's been quite the summer for TV. Stranger Things returned with a mammoth new season (its first since before the pandemic), the beloved Better Call Saul wrapped its six season run, Only Murders in the Building solved a new mystery, and two new Marvel series bowed on Disney+. And yet, standing tall atop the mountain of Summer TV 2022 is a little show that debuted with barely any fanfare in early July — on deeply unsexy network TV. Yes, I am here to tell you with no equivocation or uncertain words that ABC's reality competition series Claim to Fame was this summer's best show.

    Only part of this is a pat on my own back for recommending the show when it first premiered. As encouraged as I was by the show's engaging first episode, I was a bit more measured in my praise at the time, writing that it "seems fairly dumb at first glance but is actually a ton of fun and lets the audience play along." Out of an abundance of caution, I didn't even get into the gag at the end of the first episode where Chuck Norris' grandson was ejected from the game for cheating (he smuggled in a cell phone and was googling information). Now as the season nears its end and I've become well and truly hooked, I'm ready to dive into why Claim to Fame truly was the very best TV had to offer over these sweaty months.

    The Hosts

    One imagines that hosts Kevin and Frankie Jonas were chosen as a kind of sight gag about their level of fame relative to their two glitzier brothers, Nick and Joe. But with twelve celebritiy relatives gathered to share a swanky Hollywood Hills house and participate in challenges and elimination ceremonies, Kevin and Frankie proved more than up to the assignment, providing clear, concise hosting with easy, entertaining banter between them and an easy rapport with the contestants. Frankie, in particular, has shined with a rather sparkling chemistry that suggests he could have a future in the hosting biz. A lesser Jonas? Absolutely not.

    Surprisingly Glitzy Celebs

    Forgive me for being dubious at first that A- or even B-List celebrities would allow their relatives to drag their names through a second-rate summer reality show. Maybe they knew better? Whatever the case, kudos to executive producers Chris Coelen and Eric Detwiler for scoring some real names when it came to the contestants' relatives.

    In the premiere, we were told that Amara was Whoopi Goldberg's granddaughter and that Louise was Simone Biles' sister — not a bad start with an EGOT winner and an Olympic champion. At the time there was some concern that maybe the show was simply front-loading its two biggest names, a concern that wasn't exactly assuaged by the reveal of Chuck Norris' grandson at the end of that first episode. But no — subsequent episodes revealed relatives of Keke Palmer, Tiffany Haddish, Laverne Cox, and Zendaya! Even Brett Favre and Al Sharpton, while not exactly denizens of the red carpet, are household names. Not a "who?" among them.

    Satisfying Game Play

    This was a big one, and probably the key factor that's elevated Claim to Fame from "charming diversion" to "must-watch TV." Like many of TV's best reality competitions, the game has a simple premise (guess who everybody's secret celebrity relative is) that offers a lot of strategic layers. Initially it seemed like Louise was dead meat in episode 1, since pretty much everybody clocked that she looked exactly like her secret celebrity sister, Simone Biles. But almost immediately, the contestants realized Louise was more valuable as a known quantity they could hold in their pocket, and so they started to strategize ways to keep her around and seek out other targets.

    Thus began an ever-evolving strategy among the players that has involved shared information and strategic voting. Per the rules of the game, each week two people are put up to be the "guesser" (and thus subject to elimination if they incorrectly identify another player's celebrity relative). In the beginning, being voted as the guesser was a fraught prospect with a ton of uncertainly. As the weeks have gone on, though, the contestants' secret celebrity relatives have become clearer. In the show's middle weeks, the guesser was often someone who could be used as a pawn by the more strategic players.

    Brittany (Brett Favre's daughter) and Dominique (Al Sharpton's daughter) spent a couple of weeks taking shots at each other through proxies, although they were later supplanted by superior strategists LC (Keke Palmer's sister) and Logan (cousin to an as-yet unknown country music star). Now, in the show's final few weeks, the guesser is the game's safest position, because with so many known (or heavily assumed) identities, being the guesser allows you to control your fate. This was exhibited recently when Lark (niece to an as-yet unknown supermodel) and Louise placed themselves in position to be the guesser so they could eliminate Amara.

    It's Been So Fun to Play Along

    One of the show's best decisions was to parse out its clues little by little. Each episode has revealed a little bit more about various contestants, but generally only one celebrity relative has been confirmed each week. Depending on how closely the viewer is paying attention — and how inscrutable the clues — sometimes we're ahead in knowing one or another's celebrity relative, and sometimes we're totally in the dark. The end result is we find ourselves playing along with the contestants as they're put through a series of games, each stacked with clues about the various secret celebrities. What does that agave plant mean? Why are there all those dinosaurs on the clue wall?

    It's been even more fun to follow the players down incorrect trains of thought. Episode 1 had everybody believing that Maxwell (Chuck Norris' cheating grandson) was Steven Spielberg's relative because of some stray shark and dinosaur imagery seemed to point to the Jaws and Jurassic Park director. And ever since L.C. was revealed to the home audience as being Keke Palmer's sister in episode 4, it's been a blast watching the other contestants come to the conclusion that she kind of resembles Laurence Fishburne, and so the (multiple!) clues for Akeelah and the Bee managed to drive them further down the wrong road.

    Likewise, while the show hasn't yet revealed Lark's celebrity aunt's identity, we do know she's a former supermodel, which has made the house's increasing certainty that she's related to Martha Stewart all the more entertaining.

    Great Characters

    I suppose this is not especially surprising given their entertainment DNA, but for the most part the cast has been both fun and entertaining. LC and Logan have become a strategic power pair, but they're also both incredibly charming and reliable talking-head narrators. Brittany was shrewd and devious, Dominique spent at least a few episodes playing puppet master. Even Louise, who was initially presented as a meek sacrificial lamb has emerged as a challenge beast (runs in the family!), as well as a spiky and often confrontational little sprite.

    A few questions remain as we head into the final episodes of Claim to Fame. What is the endgame scenario, will it result in a satisfying winner, and perhaps most importantly to this viewer: will ABC renew it for a second season? Here's hoping.

    New episodes of Claim to Fame air on ABC Monday nights at 10:00 PM ET. Past episodes are available to stream on Hulu and abc.com.

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    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.

    TOPICS: Claim to Fame, ABC, Frankie Jonas, Keke Palmer, Kevin Jonas, Simone Biles, Tiffany Haddish, Whoopi Goldberg, Zendaya