WDYTYA: My two cents (and everyone else’s).

Heading into the home stretch of Who Do You Think You Are’s debut season, some of the commentary on my genealogy e-lists has gotten a bit testy.

Apparently, when WDYTYA  isn’t tarting up a respectable pastime, it’s raising research costs by getting too many  people interested in genealogy. Plus, it’s an ad for Ancestry.com. Plus, it’s about annoying celebrities, not everyday folks.

I’ve been keeping up courtesy of Web replays, and WDYTYA has done about what I expected it to do. I just didn’t expect it to be a NGS seminar or even Faces of America.

A few thoughts:

• Yes, it’s rather shallow. Attractively packaged, nicely photographed shallow, mind you. Then, too, it’s network TV. WDYTYA is not aimed at somebody who knows what a mortality schedule is. It’s aimed at (a) people with a mild curiosity about genealogy and (b) people with a stronger curiosity about whether the Celebrity of the Week has a horse thief in the family tree. On that level, it succeeds brilliantly.

• Fees increases for certificate copies and the like wouldn’t surprise me, but not because WDYTYA got bureaucracies  focused on a new cash cow. It will be because most state and local governments are running on fumes, funding-wise, as are many nonprofits.

• It’s fair to say that primary sponsor Ancestry.com gets a lot of plugs on the show. However, WDYTYA does give a nod to a  variety of sources. I didn’t come away with the impression that an Ancestry.com log-in will solve absolutely every genealogy question. (Just 95 percent of them! Couldn’t resist.)

• Objecting to the celebrity angle seems beside the point. The show gains its essential drama from the comparisons between a celebrity’s public profile and their ancestral profile. Ironies and contrasts abound. Yes, I was tickled that Matthew Broderick, who memorably portrayed a Civil War officer in “Glory,” should find a Union Army volunteer in his family story. And Sarah Jessica Parker, descendant of an accused Salem witch? C’mon. What’s not to gawk at? More poignantly, producer Lisa Kudrow’s harrowing family Holocaust story showed me another side to the actress formerly known as ditsy Phoebe.

• We could use some TV about everyday people’s genealogy problems. But truthfully, I don’t see it flying in prime time. Network TV needs a broad reach, and unless your last name is Earp or Barrymore, your family stories (and mine) probably won’t engage total, non-genealogy-hooked strangers. Still, I’d love to see a broad-brush show like WDYTYA carve out a three-minute spot at the end where a professional genealogist answered an everyday Jane’s specific question. Just sayin’.

Bottom line, it hasn’t been a profound ride, but it’s been an entertaining one. I’m looking forward to Season Two.


Who Do I Think I Am? The Nerve.

Recently  on the LinkedIn  genealogy discussion group, a link popped up to a cranky commentary prompted by NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Don’t click through if you’re feeling a bit cranky yourself.  Suffice it to say that if this guy had a TV show, it would be called Why Should Anyone Care?

I’m not sure what gets certain backs up about genealogy. Years ago, at a party, I fell into a conversation with a woman who, like me, was tracing her family tree and happily addicted to the pastime. It being the B.A. Era (Before Ancestry.com), we were harmlessly discussing microfilms and NARA repositories when the woman’s spouse came by to say hi. Upon realizing what we were talking about, he launched into a diatribe against genealogy hobbyists. He was pretty witty about it but, like, totally negative, you know? Wrecked our buzz big-time, I can tell you. His assumptions, as I recall, were:

1. Genealogy is elitist, practiced by snobs who are on a stuck-up quest for presidential and royal ancestors.

2. Genealogy is pointless, since the silly snobs will never find that royalty anyway.

3. People who are descended from nobodies, like himself, should be proud of who they are and stop the genealogy nonsense.

We're not related. I'm OK with that.

The conversation has stuck in my mind, not only because I wonder how that marriage turned out, but because Assumption #3 is so fascinatingly opposite of what I’ve found genealogy to be. See, I don’t think I’ve got any kings or even any colorful Fenians in my tree. Never have.  The ordinary people I find are more than enough for me. Especially since nobody’s been looking out for their stories as historians have looked out for the kings, queens and presidents. (At least, not until pretty recently.)

Anti-genealogy sentiment is often driven by assumptions that it’s an elitist pursuit. True,  press coverage has a way of playing up this angle. (Hey! Didya see that Brooke Shields is descended from Henri IV of France?) Less covered, but more important, is how diverse genealogical studies have become. The immigrant experience is included, thanks very much — you can read specialized works on tracing Italian, Irish, Polish ancestry. Alex Haley’s groundbreaking book Roots spurred a generation to study African-American genealogy. It’s not all about European royalty.

And yet … If people do find kings and queens in their tree, that doesn’t make them pathetic elitist snobs. It means they found somebody interesting. What are they supposed to do with these ancestors? Give them back?

Obviously I need my own TV show to process this. I think I’ll call it What’s It To You, Anyway?

Celebrity Genealogy Fun (which never happens to me)

So now we see, via E! online, that Madonna and Ellen DeGeneres are 11th cousins. E! thoughtfully includes side-by-side pictures which you can study to see how they totally resemble one another, sort of.

This discovery comes to us courtesy of Ancestry.com’s research department, and all I can say is I wish I had that sort of time to work on my stuff. But then, they are doing it for a living. Also, of course, they are the research engine behind Who Do You Think You Are?, with which I recently became current with a marathon Hulu.com viewing. (So far I like Lisa Kudrow’s episode best.)

There’s a kind of trashy glitz to celebrity genealogy stories that makes me roll my eyes. But no, I can’t look away. Maybe someday I too will find an 11th cousin who is a major international star. Although I’m not betting heavily on the possibility.

Genealogy on TV: I make a chart

I’m sure I’ll remember the first quarter of 2010 as a time of shoveling snowdrifts and watching genealogy programs on TV. (A classic case of taking the bad with the good.)

Now that Who Do You Think You Are? has kindly stepped in to replace the Faces of America fix, I was thinking the other day  about how interestingly different they are, beyond the obvious fact that each is about what family history research tells us. Since my inner nerd was roaring, I expressed myself in a chart.

Who Do You Think You Are? Faces of America
Cast size One celebrity. A dozen celebrities.
Pacing Emphasis on scope and sweep – a kind of Amazing Race with genealogy. Steady as she goes – time and care spent upon painting detailed portraits.
Graphics Striking and to the point. The genealogy charts that open each segment and the map sequences are very effective in summarizing the story’s progress in a nutshell. Beautifully lit interviews and effective use of vintage photos – attractive and also absorbing. Call it the Ken Burns effect.
Tone Very “Wow!” Revelations shock and dazzle. Very “How cool is that?” Like swapping stories with a fellow genealogy hound.

I could go on, but I hope you can see that I like both shows very much. They highlight two different benefits of family history research, both important.

Faces builds up more detail about how our individual stories flow into the broad currents of history. Who expertly captures the personal drama of uncovering the story of who stands in the shadows behind you.

And both, no doubt, will win new converts to genealogy as a hobby.

Note: If, like me, you end up with dueling children’s athletic events on the night Who Do You Think You Are is on, don’t forget you can watch episodes at NBC’s official site as well as at  hulu.com. And Faces of America episodes are being posted at pbs.org.