Friday, March 26, 2010

In Defense of "Who Do You Think You Are?"

This spring, NBC premiered a show called "Who Do You Think You Are?" which endeavors to do genealogical research about celebrities and uncover interesting stories from their pasts. Frankly, I'm not sure how popular it is, but I've thoroughly enjoyed watching it.

It must be known first that I am a genealogy nerd. I've spent the past year or so trying to decipher the mysteries of my mom's family line, and despite the weird discoveries we've made, I've enjoyed every second of it. So, I'm probably more likely to enjoy this show than others.

I've read, however, a few critiques of the show that I can't entirely disagree with. The first of which being that the show is about celebrities - as if their histories are inherently more interesting than the common person's. Not true. But, I can see why they need celebrities to do this: it's network television. They're familiar faces. If I wanted to turn on the TV and watch, for all intents and purposes, a documentary about some middle-class stranger, I'd watch the History Channel or Discovery. This is NBC. That's not going to fly unless they're trying to win some sort of competition or have strange habits that people can laugh at. (I'm looking at you, "Minute to Win It" and "The Marriage Ref.")

The second main critique is that the show is a touch over-produced, embellishing a bit too much on some stories. There is also some truth to this: the show is a bit too polished. It's like they're trying to edit "Who Do You Think You Are?" to be like "The Biggest Loser" with its intense music and cutaway cliffhangers before commercial. On top of that, the research on each celebrity's family is done ahead of time, and so it predictably feels a bit plotted as the celebrity moves from one researcher to another, each holding the exact document they need in their hands.

But: to me, the show's merits far outweigh its weaknesses. Inevitably, each story that is told is remarkable, and, celebrity or no, watching someone learn more about their past is extremely touching.

The thing about history is this: even just two generations back, there were so many more hardships involved with living every day life. Not to mention in every other generation, there was a major war - and for WWI and WWII it was two in a row. The things you can learn about your ancestors are astounding.

What the show is particularly good at is turning dates on a page into an actual human story. Each celebrity gets to travel to the locations involved in their ancestor's histories, and in doing so, it allows both them and the viewer to understand the reality of what they're learning. These are real stories of real people who got tangled in history, and all that's left of them are vague stories and ink on the page. But they existed, and their existence suddenly becomes hugely important to their descendants, who have embarked on these journeys to know where they've come from. It's a weirdly spiritual experience for these people, and to me, it's an overwhelmingly compelling emotion to watch. And that is where "Who Do You Think You Are?" finds its true value, and why I enjoy watching it.

And also why I end up crying at least three times per episode.

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