NBC’s exploring the world of ancestry research with their new reality series Who Do You Think You Are?. Executive produced by Lisa Kudrow, each episode follows a different celebrity as they trace their roots and discover new things about their ancestors.
The premiere episode follows Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City) as she discovers that one of her ancestors participated in the Gold Rush, while another was involved in the Salem Witch Trials. Not only does she uncover the stories behind these people but she gets to take the information back to her mother at the end, which gives the episode some closure. That’s essentially the formula of this new show. Later episodes include Emmitt Smith, Matthew Broderick, Lisa Kudrow, Brooke Shields, Spike Lee and Susan Sarandon. How far back these celebs look varies from person to person. While Emmitt Smith learns about an ancestor who was once a slave, Lisa Kudrow learns more about her family connection to the Holocaust and World War II. There’s definitely an element of history that’s explored in each episode, while we’re also given an inside look at the reactions of the celebrity featured as they learn more about their roots.
As the subject of Ancestry might not normally make for an exciting series to anyone other than history buffs, I think NBC has the right idea in keeping this show focused on celebrities. It seems more likely to me that more viewers will be drawn in by the various famous people featured in the series than they would in the history aspect alone but the series does a good job of balancing both aspects of the subject matter and will probably inspire plenty of people to look into their own ancestry.
My own experience with ancestry research includes a few Google searches and a visit to Ancestry.com. The website, which is featured numerous times on Who Do You Think You Are? charges for access to the information on file, so I never got beyond giving the site a look before opting not to pay. That said, before watching this new NBC series, I got the impression that in order to truly explore your ancestry beyond the last few generations, you’d have to be willing to put some money and time into the “hobby.” With that in mind, I’d be interested in hearing what people who have actively researched their ancestry think about this new series. It seems likely to me that NBC got some good people involved in doing the research to make each episode worth watching as every celebrity manages to uncover something interesting and each of the stories they discover has some kind of conclusion to it, as opposed to ending with “We have no idea what happened to your great-great-great-great-grandmother after that.” They track down the right people to answer their questions and find the documents they need to get the answers they’re looking for. It all comes together fairly easily (possibly too easily).
So as far as how realistic the series is in showing the time and money it would take to find interesting things about your ancestors, I don’t have the experience to say for sure whether the show works, however I have my doubts. In terms of the series working as far as interest and entertainment goes, Who Do You Think You Are? is worth checking out. Not only are all of the celebrities enthusiastic about the adventure they’re taking but we get to see them travelling to some of the places where their ancestors’ stories played out, which means there’s something to watch other than seeing a famous person sitting in a library or at a computer pouring over census data.
Who Do You Think You Are? premieres Friday, March 5 on NBC (8-9 p.m. ET).