Adapted from a BBC series of the same name, Who Do You Think You Are? (2010-present) is a clever reality/documentary series seriously marred by presentation problems that get in the way of its effectiveness. On the plus side it turns genealogical research into dramatic, sometimes emotionally powerful television while overcoming the basic problem of discussing other people's roots.
Though it airs on NBC, Who Do You Think You Are? - Season 1 comes to DVD via Acorn Media, a two disc set of seven hour-slotted episodes. The presentation is nice, but there are no extra features and the disc is a little bit pricey for just seven shows.
The premise is simple enough: each episode features a different celebrity. Season one's lineup consists of Sarah Jessica Parker, (NFL star) Emmitt Smith, Lisa Kudrow (also one of the program's executive producers), Matthew Broderick (also Parker's husband), Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, and Spike Lee. In each episode, the featured guest traces one part of his or her family tree, meeting with local historians and genealogists, following clues across the United States and, in some shows, Europe and Africa.
(Mild Spoilers): It's fascinating, compelling stuff. Parker learns of one ancestor who traveled west during the California Gold Rush, and another who was accused of witchcraft during the infamous Salem witch trials. Smith traces his roots all the way back to Benin, on Africa's west coast, encountering disturbing documentation on his 19th century ancestors' lives as American slaves along the way.
Similarly disturbing documentation of Kudrow's Jewish ancestors appear in Nazi records about their mass murder in a village in what's now part of Belarus. Some episodes play like the show's researchers well in advance cherry-picked the most dramatic route to steer their subjects toward, but in Kudrow's case at least, the story has an unexpected twist with a big emotional payoff.
Though initially wary about a show focused on the family histories of celebrities - "Who gives a shit?" one might reasonably ask - from the first episode it's clear that while their fame may be what pulls in the ratings initially, they function as "plain folks" just like you and me. Ultimately, they take a backseat to the personal lives of their ancestors whose universal, identifiable stories millions of families across America will relate to. The series' producers cannily divide the guests into obvious categories: the African-American experience, the Jewish-immigrant experience, the pioneer spirit, etc.
A big problem with the show, greatly accentuated on DVD, is its endless regurgitation of material. Though it airs in an hour timeslot, like other network shows 60 minutes really means, barely, 41 minutes minus the commercials. In the case of Who Do You Think You Are?, at every commercial break the story also stops dead in its tracks to run clips of what's coming up, followed by more clips of what you've just seen. Additionally, shows begins with a long teaser for the entire season, followed by another teaser for the show you're about to watch. Excluding all this material along with the end titles, what's left sure seems like a 20-minute show in a 60-minute timeslot.
Another problem is the program's intrusive product placement. The popular website Ancestry.com is financially connected with the show, and at some point in each episode a researcher invariably suggests, "I know! Let's look this up on Ancestry.com!" followed by a tight close-up of the website and its corporate logo. I don't think I've seen anything this blatant since Moonraker (1979).
Video & Audio
Who Do You Think You Are? - Season 1 is presented in its original 1.78:1 broadcast format with 16:9 widescreen enhancement, and is up to contemporary standards. The Dolby Digital stereo is similarly up to 2011 broadcast standards while the disc is supported by SDH English subtitles. There are no Extra Features
Who Do You Think You Are? is slickly made and its personal stories suck the viewer in but all that padding will drive you nuts. Recommended.
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