27 July 2013

"Who Do You Think You Are?" Returns

Note: A slightly different version of this post originally appeared here.

A few days ago, I watched the somewhat triumphant return of "Who Do You Think You Are?" to cable television. The season premiere featured pop singer Kelly Clarkson researching her great-great-great grandfather Isaiah Rose, a Union soldier who was captured at the battle of Decatur, Georgia and sent to the infamous Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, only to escape and eventually become a county sheriff and an Ohio state senator. You can watch the full episode on the show's website by clicking on the above link. The show, which features celebrities discovering their genealogies and family histories, is a big hit on British TV, but the American version was saddled with low ratings and disappeared from NBC's summer schedule after last season. Apparently, however, the show has enough of a fan base in the U. S. to justify a relaunch on the cable channel TLC.

On the plus side, the show is interesting and thought provoking. It's motivated me to begin researching my own family history again, something I have tried to do, off and on, with varying degrees of success, for many years now. On the minus side, I do have several beefs with the show:

First, it's built on a formula. Every episode begins with Big Famous Celebrity who has a lingering question about his or her family history. What really happened to cousin Fred when he disappeared for six months in World War II? Was Great Aunt Ida really a show girl? Was Great Great Great Grandpa Leroy an escaped slave? So, Big Famous Celebrity traipses off across the country (and often around the world) to meet with historians, archivists, librarians, and genealogists who seemingly by magic and on command produce documents that provide another piece to the puzzle. There are twists and turns. There are dead ends. At the end, however, the mystery is solved by a Stunning Revelation that leaves Big Famous Celebrity choked up or teary eyed on camera. A sadder but wiser man or woman, he or she returns home to the bosom of his or her family to reflect on What We Have All Learned From This. Fade to black, roll credits, cue commercial.

Second, it focuses on celebrities. Why are the family histories of actors or pop singers necessarily more interesting than those of truck drivers, nurses, or teachers, for example? I 'm just a newbie genealogist and family historian, but I'll bet nearly everybody has someone interesting in their family tree if they go back far enough. My father flew fighter planes in World War II. His mother, my grandmother, had chronic, crippling arthritis that left her bedridden much of the time, but she still raised two children and helped support her family during the Great Depression by writing poetry, short stories, and advertising jingles for contests and promotions. One of my ancestors signed Scotland's declaration of independence—some 400 years before the American one. I think the show would gain, not lose, emotional impact if it focused on ordinary people rather than on celebrities. What if each week Joe or Josephine Average from Des Moines or Tampa or Buffalo found out that they were related to a scientist or a millionaire or a baseball player? Or that they were related to other ordinary good, decent, compassionate, quietly heroic people? Wouldn't that motivate other people across America to find out more about their families?

Third, it presents a distorted picture of genealogical research. At the beginning of the hour, the celebrity has a problem. At the end of the hour (less, if you deduct time for commercials), the celebrity has a solution. He or she jets around the country and around the world to meet with the experts who have just the information our protagonist needs.. At least once per episode, someone suggests that the celebrity consult Ancestry.com, the show's sponsor, and our hero always finds at least one useful nugget of information there. Again, I'm just a beginner at this, but I do have sense and experience enough to know that it can't be that easy for us mere mortals. I've just started using Ancestry.com and its Family Tree Maker software myself, and they are indeed wonderful tools, but they are not the whole story.

I 'd guess that each episode of this show took months of planning and preparation. Someone would have to research the historical and genealogical problems involved and figure out who had the documents, information, and expertise to solve them. I'm not a pop star with the resources and budget of a production company and a major TV network behind me. I can't fly all around the world to research documents and meet with experts. I expect that in my search there will be dead ends and disappointments. There will be documents I need that aren't at the county courthouse, the state bureau of vital statistics, or digitized in an online database somewhere. If they are, I might have to spend my own money and wait weeks for copies. Yet I'm willing to take those risks because I want to know more about my family. I'll just have to do genealogy the old-fashioned way.

Will I keep watching the TLC reboot? Probably. A flawed show about genealogy on TV is better than no show about genealogy on TV. However, after watching the pilot episode of the reboot, I can tell that none of the flaws from the original American version have been corrected. It's still structured far too much like a patently unreal "reality show" that relies on contrived situations and cheap, transparent emotional manipulation of the celebrity protagonist and the audience. I wish the American version were more like the British version, which feels more like a serious documentary and less like an episode of "Real Genealogists of Beverly Hills" or something. Here for example, is a link to the British version of WDYTYA and its episode featuring J. K. Rowling. To me, the storytelling style seems more restrained, and the filmmakers seem more willing to step back and let events speak for themselves rather than manipulating the star and the audience to a predetermined conclusion. As a result, I think the show gains significant emotional impact. Real life can be exciting if we just experience it for what it is rather than trying to make it into something it isn't.

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