By Paula Hendrickson
TV can inspire viewers. Sometimes even in a good way.
When NBC canceled the Lisa Kudrow-produced unscripted show, Who Do You Think You Are? after three short seasons, I felt a bit let down. I actually enjoyed watching celebrities trace their family histories and uncover intriguing stories. The fact that celebrities were involved made no difference to me. The process and history is what drew me in. Thankfully, TLC picked up the show. Its fourth season recently concluded, and despite the blatant product placement for Ancestry.com, I already miss it. I hope it will be back for a fifth season.
I had an even stronger reaction when Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS series Finding Your Roots ended in 2012. It followed up his equally fascinating PBS series, Faces of America and African-American Lives (parts 1 and 2) in which he used conventional genealogy as well as DNA testing to deliver both historic and scientific information to participating celebrities. (I still remember when he discovered actress Eva Longoria and cellist Yo-Yo Ma were distant relations, despite most of her family originating in Mexico and his in China.)
Shows like these prove how small the world truly is.
PBS has a new entry: Genealogy Roadshow. This series helps ordinary Americans get the truth behind family lore. The first episode, which aired last week, took place in Nashville, Tenn. This week’s episode was taped in Detroit. Upcoming episodes come from San Francisco and Austin, Texas. Experts use genealogical records — and sometimes DNA — to sift fact from fiction. Some people are disappointed to learn they weren’t related to a notable figure, others are thrilled to finally prove old rumors are true.
Genealogy Roadshow covers multiple families per hour and can’t concentrate in depth on any one family tree, but I’m glad it’s on. Especially now, since one of my cousins recently asked if I wanted to help research our family tree. He traced one branch back to about 1723 in New England, and we’re now trying to figure out where the previous generation originated.
We also have a story that would be ideal for Genealogy Roadshow: an undocumented family history alludes to several prominent English citizens dating back to the 1300s. The problem is they never proved the direct connection. Words like “most likely” and “I suspect this is our Thomas” proliferate the multiple-page document.
In the first episode of Genealogy Roadshow, one genealogist proved someone was related to Davy Crockett by tracing back from one of Crockett’s known ancestors and finding several-times-great grandparents that connected them. That inspired me to try working backward (earliest to latest) to see if I can find a connection between our known ancestors and those English aristocrats. There’s nothing to report so far, but it’s kind of addictive trying to piece it all together.
Whether these shows use Ancestry.com, DNA and/or historical records to reconstruct family trees, the thing that has always fascinated me is how interconnected our world really is.
Genealogy Roadshow airs Mondays on PBS at 8 p.m. WHA-Madison and at 9 p.m. WTTW-Chicago. (Check listings for repeats.)
Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, Television Week and TVGuide. Follow her on Twitter at P_Hendrickson and send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the Oct. 2-8, 2013, issue