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Stars on Mars' Celeb-on-Celeb Action Makes the Faux Space Travel Worth It

There's no shortage of hang-out time in Fox's "Mars isolation experiment."
  • [Editor's Note: This post contains spoilers for the Stars on Mars premiere, "The Experiment Begins."]

    As reality competition series go, Fox's Stars on Mars is as simulated as it gets. The show sees 12 celebrities — not the genre's usual B-listers, but legitimate stars including Olympian Adam Rippon, The Real Housewives of Atlanta's Porsha Williams Guobadia, and Vanderpump Rules stalwart Tom Schwartz — embark upon a "Mars isolation experiment" that tests their ability to survive on the red planet. For weeks, they're isolated in a man-made "space station" in the South Australian desert, venturing beyond the safety of their new home only to participate in "missions" assigned by host William Shatner. In keeping with the theme, Shatner, aka "Mission Control," appears in pre-taped segments; he can't even communicate with the group in real time, as there's "a 17-minute delay" between the Mars camp and Earth.

    But despite all this artificial drama, Stars on Mars' celebrity cast brings a dose of authenticity to the premiere, "The Experiment Begins." This is partially a result of the episode's structure: The lone challenge doesn't begin until 25 minutes in, giving the celebrities ample time to hang out and get to know each other. While making allies is a key part of game play — every 48 hours, the group votes to eliminate one of their crewmates — these moments of connection feel genuine, as when Schwartz (who jokes that he's desperate for "a break from reality") explains the premise of Vanderpump Rules to actor Christopher Mintz-Plasse. "It's like, people who work at a restaurant have sex with each other," he says, and considering the #Scandoval of it all, his description is apt.

    Minutes later, Schwartz fanboys over Mintz-Plasse's role in Superbad, but he promises not to say the name of his infamous character "because he's so sick of that." As if on cue, former NFL player Marshawn Lynch, who has just gone through the mandated "decontamination" zone (a high-pressure air spray that blasts participants in the face), enters the kitchen and lays eyes on Mintz-Plasse. "Hey, McLovin!" yells Lynch, as the Superbad star shoots daggers at him from across the room.

    For fans used to seeing the sanitized, press tour-ified versions of celebrities, brutally honest encounters like this one offer a delightful alternative that reveals a sliver of their true selves. Mintz-Plasse has been open about the "intense" fame he experienced after Superbad was released in 2007, but watching him bristle at the moniker reflects just how frustrated he is that McLovin continues to follow him into adulthood.

    Modern Family alum Ariel Winter has a similar moment of sincerity, though it's probably one she would choose to forget. In a scene that's bound to go viral, Winter mistakes cyclist Lance Armstrong for Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the Moon. "He is a real astronaut. He is Lance Armstrong. You need to Google him!" she says in a talking head interview. When Winter marvels aloud at Armstrong's presence, Williams Guobadia stares at her, open-mouthed and clearly laughing internally at the error, but doesn't correct her.

    It's only later that Winter realizes what she's done, and she's mortified. "Part of my fear of coming on the show was that I was going to say something stupid," she says. "And I literally– I outdid myself." The others could easily pile on, but they choose kindness: While Williams Guobadia and singer/actress Tinashe agree that the blunder is "funny," they encourage Winter not to "take [her]self too seriously." Unlike Mintz-Plasse, whose irritation with Lynch blossoms into a general apathy for the experiment, Winter moves beyond her public embarrassment, stepping up during the team challenge to prove she's "mission critical." (Meanwhile, Mintz-Plasse is eliminated by his peers after feebly attempting to justify his lack of participation.)

    The Stars on Mars premiere isn't all lighthearted celebrity interactions and unforced errors, even if Lynch and Armstrong's banter is quite entertaining. Their first night in the space station, Ronda Rousey asks Tallulah Willis, the daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, if she has advice about growing up with famous parents, and Willis offers an incredibly thoughtful response. "It was 2003, my mom had just started dating Ashton [Kutcher] ... I really went inside of myself. That did send me into a total dumpster fire," she tells her co-stars. "I'm still unpacking, however, I found the other side of that. Which is like, I really love myself now. And I love my family."

    Willis' honesty endears her to the other contestants, including those inclined to write her off as "the quintessential nepo baby," as Tinashe describes her. But the fact that Willis is given the space to expound on the difficulties in her personal life in the first place demonstrates just how different Stars on Mars is from celebrity competitions that manufacture drama or throw their participants into non-stop mental and physical challenges. Sure, it's fun to watch these stars don heavy astronaut suits and work to "restore communication with Mission Control" in the midst of a sandstorm, but the real draw is seeing them drop their guard and interact with one another on an authentic, day-to-day level. That Fox manages to tease this out of a show that rests entirely on an artificial premise makes for a pleasant surprise amid the deluge of ridiculous summertime TV.

    New episodes of Stars on Mars air Mondays at 8:00 PM ET on Fox. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Stars on Mars, FOX, Adam Rippon, Ariel Winter, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Lance Armstrong, Marshawn Lynch, Porsha Williams, Ronda Rousey, Tallulah Willis, Tinashe, Tom Schwartz, William Shatner