Since the debut of Survivor over a decade ago, reality TV has exploded. The addition of celebrities to the format soon followed, and we were treated to such milestones as The Surreal Life and the Anna Nicole Show. If it seemed like we had reached a new low in entertainment, we had. Amazingly, TMZ pioneered new depths later, but that is a different story.
The point is, I never thought I would ever get anything out of a celebrity reality TV show. Certainly not one produced by ditzy former Friend Lisa Kudrow, of all people. Wow, was I wrong. Who Do You Think You Are has proven to be one of the most enriching, and truly interesting shows I have seen in a long time.
The premise is pretty straightforward. By following celebrities on their questing to trace their family trees, we discover often amazing secrets buried in the past. The unusual twists and turns these journeys unravel could be yours, because (as the cliché goes) everyone has a story.
Who Do You Think You Are: Season One has just been issued as a two-DVD set, and makes for fascinating viewing. The seven one-hour episodes follow Sarah Jessica Parker, Emmit Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Broderick, Brook Shields, Susan Sarandon, and Spike Lee as they trace their respective heritages.
Obviously these are not D-List names, and each person’s history is treated with dignity and respect. What often emerges is genuinely surprising. Sarah Jessica Parker’s story is a prime example. While she had always thought her family were recent arrivals to America, the truth is that her ancestors can be traced back to just a few years after the Mayflower landed. The jaw-dropping moment comes when she finds out that one of her relatives was accused of being a witch during the Salem trials. I won’t spoil the outcome, but suffice to say that this first episode of the series hooked me completely.
Lisa Kudrow’s family originates from Eastern Europe, and the Holocaust had a profound effect on them. Both Emmit Smith and Spike Lee had relatives who were slaves, and their stories are very moving as well. In fact, all seven of these programs are riveting, each in their own way.
The show is heavily subsidized by ancestry.com – there are multiple plugs for the website in each episode. I mention this because the overwhelming feeling a person gets after watching someone like Susan Sarandon find out about her grandmother’s racy past – is the desire to find out abut your own history.
This is a really positive use of the genre. Sure, it is probably more interesting to watch famous people discover their roots than it would likely be to watch your next door neighbor. But the true worth of Who Do You Think You Are is in its inspirational effect.
To encourage people to find out as much as possible about their own personal history is a very positive thing. The show has certainly pushed me in that direction and the couple of small discoveries I have already made have been both wonderful, and hard to believe. Who Do You Think You Are is a powerful, and extremely enjoyable series – an all too rare example of TV at its finest.