“Who Do You Think You Are?” (What Do You Think This Is?)

This post is going to show some of my cynicism about the mainstream media, so forgive me.

Last night, I got to watch the fourth episode in this season of the American version of “Who Do You Think You Are?” about Kim Cattrall. I, for one, really enjoyed it.

This season, I’ve been paying more attention to what my fellow genealogists think about the series, mainly through listening to the BlogTalkRadio discussions after the show, but also by reading the blogs too.

Some of the comments about last night’s episode, and the show in general, don’t sit well with me. But I see that it’s all a matter of perspective. Here’s mine:

This is entertainment, folks, pure and simple. It is not a special-interest show on a special-interest channel. This is a prime-time television show on one of the major broadcast networks, televised at 8 p.m. on a Friday night. This means it is catering to the masses.

In journalism school, shortly after learning the basics about writing the 5Ws (Who, What, When, Where and Why), you learn what sells in the news:

1) Sex
2) Things on fire or things exploding
3) Fuzzy animals
4) Kids
5) Some combination of two or more of the above

The same goes for primetime TV. If there is a salacious story in a celebrity’s family trees (example: Kim Cattrall) and the show can televise it, they will.

Also, in journalism school, you are told to write to the 8th-grade level of reading comprehension, because that will work for the masses. Given the TV seriesĀ  “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” perhaps the standard has been lowered.

Therefore, if a celebrity has George Washington somehow connected to his family history (example: Tim McGraw), of course the show is going to jump umpteen generations back in order to tell that story. Everybody knows who George Washington is!

My point is, that it’s okay. It’s a prime-time, major network entertainment show. It’s not a how-to genealogy show on the BYU channel. In fact, the word ‘genealogy’ doesn’t even appear in the description of the show on the NBC web site.

I bring this up after a comment about the Kim Cattrall episode that struck me. Folks said that the episode wasn’t about genealogy, it was about sleuthing. She didn’t move backwards through her family tree. She picked a generation and moved forward.


Well, to me, genealogy is sleuthing. And if you have a mystery in your family tree, you move forward to find out the answers. I think most people, at some point, have a mystery ancestor that disappeared. Let’s say you manage to find him or her. Aren’t you going to want to see what became of them?

For all the criticism that the Tim McGraw episode received for jumping back too many generations, the Kim Cattrall episode is generating comments about spending so much time on a more recent one. I liked the fact that they stayed with the one storyline. Anyways, aren’t we supposed to start with the most recent generation and move backward once we’ve filled in the blanks?

This episode traced some collateral lines to help solve a mystery. I’ve posted about checking on the neighbors in census records. Well, Cattrall knocked on the neighbor’s door in real life! She stopped in a pub as part of her quest for answers (that’s brilliant!). In tracing the most recent generations, it’s important to talk to real, live people with memories while you still can. It’s not all about newspaper clippings and census records on Ancestry.com.

One other complaint that I heard was that this was an apparent re-hashing of an episode aired in the UK as part of the British series a few years ago. Well, of course it is. That’s basically a free episode in the can for NBC. Perhaps they could have admitted as much up front though.

I do admit that I too watch this series with a genealogist’s/archivist’s eye — I’ve clucked a few times when I see old documents not receiving the white-glove treatment. But I don’t let that stand in the way of my enjoying the show. I come to be entertained, and I am. Every week.

I do understand the qualms of some of my fellow genealogists. I really do. This is our craft! We want it portrayed accurately. We’re afraid that when a fledgling family historian sees the show and how easily the celebrities can skip back several generations, that it’s painting the wrong picture.

It’s akin to the “CSI factor.” The DNA tests on crime shows during prime-time TV take hours, not weeks or months, like they do in real life. This drives those in law enforcement nuts. When they try to assemble a jury, they need to re-educate them as to investigative principles and techniques because what’s portrayed on TV isn’t the real deal. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s what sells. It’s a lot harder to write a CSI episode if you have to work in a months-long gap for the DNA results to be returned.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re watching this show expecting real-life genealogy, you’ve come to the wrong place. But if you’re willing to sit back, relax and hear a good yarn about the celebrity being featured, then you’re going to be entertained. That’s the point. (Edited to add: Well, that and selling some Ancestry.com subscriptions).