Genealogy gets some celebrity cache in "Who Do You Think You Are," premiering tonight on NBC at 8.
Each week show tracks the family history of a celebrity. The seven are: Matthew Broderick, Lisa Kudrow (who produced the show), Spike Lee, Sarah Jessica Parker, Susan Sarandon, Brooke Shields and Emmitt Smith.
Although the show seems a rip-off of "Faces of America," the PBS specials Harvard professor Skip Gates has hosted, it's actually based on a British hit.
On Gates' show, the professor sits and talks to the subject about their own stories and what they know of their family history. Then he presents them with the research experts have found. On this show, we watch the celebrity travel to the places where the research leads them. They don't actually do research, experts help throughout the discovery, but they might scroll through some microfilm or handle an aged document.
What's likable about the show is that it makes history personal. While I was watching it I thought that if we could some how bring genealogy to schools in a real way, maybe more kids would get excited about history. Sarah Jessica Parker's family story, for instance, touches on the Salem Witch trials. I agree with the show's premise that as Americans, our histories, our lives, tell this country's story.
But, I watched a few episodes, and I can't say they were riveting. Part of the problem, I think, are the people chosen. Although the press release describes the group as "today's most-beloved and iconic celebrities," I'm not convinced.
I appreciate the show's desire to be diverse, but with both Lee and Smith having roots in the South, well, we know where their stories are going. Although, you'd think Smith never learned about slavery. In one scene, he's shown a bound book labeled 'marriage licenses colored.' He asks the woman to stop, noting with dramatic astonishment that he's never seen water fountains marked white and colored, and here he is looking at a book labeled that way. Mind you, he's standing in a records room in Alabama. Burnt Corn, Alabama. I mean, even if he never picked up a history book, hasn't he seen "Roots"?
Later, a swab reveals that he's genetically a high percentage of African (really?) and off he goes to Benin. It's where his ancestors might possibly have come from. Or Senegal. Or Sierra Leone. Or Gambia. The point is, it's impossible to know, and that's not really said.
The bigger problem is that, in the end, your family revelations only really matter to you. Some of this will be interesting to the rest of us but only briefly. After all, what does Lisa Kudrow's family history have to do with you?
I don't mean to dismiss the show's value completely; in fact, it might inspire you to do a little research yourself (and Ancestry.com gets plenty of TV time, so you'll probably start there). But that made me think of something else: these celebrities can afford to pay for this kind of research. What about a reality show that plucks regular people off the street and digs into their family trees?
That would be a tremendous gift to a lot of folk and might even be a little more interesting.