Saturday, April 03, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are?

I started watching this show on Hulu (one of my favorite websites) a couple of weeks ago, and at first I thought it was fascinating. My favorite episode so far has been where Lisa Kudrow finds out that the relatives she thought were dead survived the Holocaust and are living in Poland and she got to meet them. (Best scene ever is when she realizes this guy is still living and she's babbling about how to find him- census records or tax records there has to be some way to find him! And the researcher hands her the phone book. So funny.) It made it clear that World War II was not that long ago. Even though most of us have grandparents who lived through it, I tend to forget that it was the same generation that was being exterminated by the Nazis. It feels like ancient history instead of something very recent.

The show really likes to hammer home how cruel humans can be to each other. Besides the Nazis, there's also the Salem witch trials and slave ownership in not-so-early American history. It makes for very dramatic stories.

A few things really get on my nerves about the show. #1 is the really random and in fact unrelated associations the actors make between their ancestors and their own lives. When he found out that his great great great however many times grandfather Robert fought in the Civil War, Matthew Broderick felt compelled to share that the character he played in "Glory" was also named Robert. When Brooke Shields found out that she is descended from French nobility, she said that maybe she knew she had a connection to France because she studied French literature. Okay, these are not good things to put on the air because they sound dumb.

The second thing that really bothered me was in the show about Emmitt Smith. Like most African-Americans he's got some European blood in him, and I for one wasn't that surprised that it went back to a white slave owner in Virginia. The fact that they could even trace it is absolutely stunning. (It looks like humans in general really like to keep documentation about the atrocities they commit- again I'm thinking of the Nazis but also the incredible amount of paperwork kept about who owned what slaves for tax and census purposes.) Anyway, yes we can all agree that the slave owner who impregnates his slave women is probably not the nicest guy, although I guess in this case the fact that he sent the family away but kept them together was pretty humane when you consider the time. But that doesn't mean your family tree comes to a screeching halt. A wealthy slave and land holder in Virginia has to have some more roots to trace back further. But they stopped there, and I'm not sure what the reason was. Maybe the show would have run too long. Maybe nobody wants to know where this bad (?) person came from anyway. But it looked like, "Okay Emmitt, we have traced all of your black roots back as far as we can, this white guy really doesn't have anything to do with you." But actually, he does- like it or not they are still related.

I guess another thing that irritates me about the show is that if you trace anyone's family tree back far enough you're probably going to run into someone or some period in time that is famous. Nobility, witches, holocaust victims, war heroes, I'm sure 90% of the American population has stories like this because we're a melting pot. Your grandmother on one side may be a poor immigrant from Romania (and she probably has her own fascinating history), but on the other side your family might have come over on the Mayflower. It's all so mixed up it's hard to know.

The last thing I'm going to bitch about (because really there is a lot that lets me down about this show) is the research involved. It gives you the impression that you can just go to (which might as well be the name of the show because it gets a spot in every episode and is a major sponsor) and type in a name an POOF your family tree appears. This is not true in the least. And the show needs good stories to be entertaining enough for people to watch it. So, is there a team of genealogists and historians whose sole job is to trace the family trees of famous people until they run into a good story? Then are said famous people contacted to see if they'll do a show? I'd love to know what the process is.

All of these things drive me nuts, but I do have to point out that I'm still watching. We'll see how long I hold out.

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