Sunday, February 6, 2011

“Who Do You Think You Are?”

Vanessa Williams
            The American version of “Who Do You Think You Are?” just began its second season on February 4, with a show based on Vanessa Williams. If you’ve never heard of it, “Who Do You Think You Are?” is a television series that explores the genealogical background of a different celebrity guest in each weekly episode. It runs on the NBC network on Friday evenings, and it’s well worth watching.
            Vanessa Williams was the first black Miss America, and she went on to have a very successful career as a singer and actor. In a way, it does not matter who the celebrities are, except to attract their fans as viewers. It helps, obviously, if they have strong personalities and use their charisma to dramatize the search for their ancestors. But the heart of the series is the search itself and the history lessons that flow naturally from delving into the past. 
David Carll’s grave marker
            Vanessa’s “journey”, as current jargon calls it, led her to two great great grandfathers, one on her mother’s side, one on her father’s side. The former, David Carll, was a free colored man in New York, who enlisted in a colored regiment in the Union army during the Civil War, fought in South Carolina, and remained in service there after the war to maintain order and ensure that the defeated states of the Confederacy abided by federal law. 
            The latter, William Fields, became a schoolteacher in Tennessee after the Civil War, and was elected to the state legislature. Later he was a highly respected justice of the peace. Both were admirable and even heroic figures, and it was moving to observe Vanessa rediscovering her roots. There’s an interview with her and informative article on the show from the London Daily Mail, available online. 
William Fields
British DVD cover
            Judging by this episode, the producers of “Who Do You Think You Are?” have learned from a lot of mistakes in the first series, and improved the second one significantly. Like many American TV hits these days, this one is a remake of a British show. It even has the same title and logo. Perhaps I was spoiled by having first seen the program in London a few years ago. 
            The BBC has one big and insuperable advantage over NBC: no commercials. In the first American series, the producers began each post-commercial segment with a lengthy recap of what had happened in the previous segment. It wasn’t necessary; Americans have long since shortened their attention spans to accommodate the mass media. The recaps just ate up the time. In the new format, just before each commercial break we see a quick preview of what’s coming; the pace is much snappier. homepage
            The sponsorship was another problem. The program is partly produced by, and that seems like a match made on But went too far in its product placement, at least in my opinion; several times in each show, the star would go to the computer, and do a search. I don’t mean to criticize the website and what it offers. I’ve used it for several years, and it’s a fabulous resource for research on families and their history. If you’re interested in genealogy, you should subscribe. But it’s not the only place to look, and on television it lacks visual and dramatic appeal. The company forgot that one of the really exciting moments for the website users is the sight of an ancestor’s name in an actual handwritten document, like a census-taker’s form or a ship’s passenger list. Watching someone else watch a computer screen weakens the impact. In the British model, they went out of their way to pull the dusty volume off the shelf and let the camera zoom in on the crucial lines. In last Friday’s show, there was only one brief session with, completely adequate to make the point without upstaging the people and the subject. 
David Carll’s enlistment papers
            The British producers used the supporting cast much more effectively than in the first U.S. series. Most programs began with a visit to the subject’s parents or other close relatives, followed by a parade of librarians, curators, archivists, and local history buffs – there is no topic in British history too obscure for someone to develop a passion for it – and all these experts had their own quirky charm. Cutting back on the recaps and the demonstrations left room for many more experts to contribute to Vanessa’s quest, and that was a plus.
            The extra time also makes it possible to introduce more historical background. The British version introduced fascinating bits of history in every show, whether it was the Inclosure Acts, or the Dardanelles campaign, or the tobacco industry, or the French police – the list is endless. Vanessa’s family led to discussions of the colored regiments in the Civil War and the rise of segregation after Reconstruction. More depth would be welcome, but it was a good start.
            About the only thing remaining that I’d like to change is the over-hyping, summed up for me in the catch phrase, “This is where it all began.” Vanessa intoned it solemnly when she found out about her great great grandfathers. Last year Brooke Shields spoke it outside a house in France where an important ancestor lived. But those ancestors had parents, who had parents, and so on back into the mists of time where we can no longer find the traces, and even that is not where it all began. Like the website blurbs about unlocking mysteries, learning tragic secrets, and discovering relationships that could change everything, the evocation of a spurious point of origin is meant to raise expectations. It may just obscure the real delight of finding forgotten truths about one’s past, however humble they might be.
This is not where it all began.
            Well, that’s a small complaint alongside the many virtues of “Who Do You Think You Are?” Actually, the British version got better from season to season. The supporting characters and the drama of visiting the archives were used much more effectively in the sixth and seventh series than in the first and second. It looks as if the American version is following the same path toward improvement. If so, the program deserves to draw bigger and bigger audiences, and last for many years.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating story, says one who has little idea who he is or where he's from, let alone where it all began.