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DVD Review: Who Do You Think You Are: The Complete First Season

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Being someone with a somewhat unusual last name, I have often wondered about my family history and where it came from. Due to my natural apathy, I have only got as far as a brief Google search (apparently a corruption of my name is responsible for a road name). It’s nice to know that with the help of a documentary production team, researchers and several professionals, you can get a lot further as seen in Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are? is a series originally made for Britain, remade for the U.S. by Lisa Kudrow (who appears in the third episode). The DVD of the American series first season has come into my critical crosshairs today.

The idea is that celebrities use genealogy and Ancestry.com (featured very prominently in the show as you might expect, complete with awkward handheld camera shots, due to their sponsorship of the show) to find information about their lost ancestors. There is usually a rather (attentive readers, take a shot now) flimsy family-history-based pretext for why they’re doing research into this particular time, as detailed below.

The most striking thing about this American series is how different it is for me from the television and DVDs I’m used to as a Brit, although this may be because I mainly watch BBC stuff. Where hour-long BBC programmes are written with no advertising breaks in mind (which makes them rather awkward to edit for the cable channel Dave), U.S. programmes have them by the truckload, if this series is anything to go by.

In the name of research, I sat down with a notepad while watching one of the episodes to track useless content. Under “useless content”, I counted the closing credits, the series trailer that opens each episode (this is distinct from the opening credits as it serves as an introduction to the series, thus it is unnecessary on a DVD), the precaps and recaps that open each segment of the show (“coming up” and “before the break” respectively).

For the “Brooke Shields” episode, I got a 40:43 run time, during which there were 10 caps of both varieties and varying in length (the shorter ones occurred when not much happened after the break), a 1 minute and 30 second series trailer and a 1 minute and 15 seconds combination of the episode trailer and the opening credits. All in all, I worked out that there were a staggering seven minutes of filler content, 25 if you include the 18 minutes of adverts that would’ve been there during the original airing. 

As a home viewer, it’s rather annoying to sit through 35 minutes of actual content per 42 minute episode with breaks for adverts not present on the DVD every few minutes. Most of this set could’ve done with a lot of editing to get rid of content rendered unnecessary by the format change; for example, leaving aside the adverts issue as I’ve covered that enough, someone who already owns the DVD does not need to see the series trailer at the beginning of each episode. 

Fortunately, it is not all doom and gloom. The episodes are genuinely interesting, especially the “Brooke Shields” one as mentioned above (if I recall correctly, she can trace her father’s lineage back over 700 years through aristocracy and kings). You can also observe how documentaries are made, as the show is fairly transparent in that it picks celebrities who have connections to difficult times in history, such as World War II or the American Civil War so they the episode will basically be about that time period rather than the celebrity’s family history. A notable example of this is that you get two episodes (“Emmitt Smith” and “Spike Lee”) whose entire running time can basically be summed up as “slavery and racism are bad”. However, although it is transparent, it still works and is fairly emotional. 

I should mention that the DVD feels very basic. It is the series and only the series. There’s no special features of any kind here, and as I said, it hasn’t been edited down from its original television airing (which is a bit of a rarity in my experience). I have a strong suspicion that all the producers did was ship over the original footage without the added adverts, which was then put as is ontoDVD. 

Overall, it’s a fairly average documentary. If someone asked me whether I would recommend it (this is the point of a review, after all), I’d have to say no. Usually a DVD or Blu-ray offers both an experience you cannot get on the television and a chance to actually own your favourite shows to watch whenever you like. In this case there is nothing you can’t get watching it on television, and to be honest, this isn’t one of my favourite shows. If you’re a fan of the series, then this is probably for you (although if you want to learn anything about how it was made I wouldn’t bother). Otherwise try and catch an episode before you buy it. 

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