By Paula Hendrickson
Former Friends star Lisa Kudrow is more than an actress, she’s also a producer. In addition to creating, starring in and executive producing shows like The Comeback and Web Therapy, she’s also a creative force behind the reality show, Who Do You Think You Are?.
(TV trivia: Kudrow’s co-creator, fellow executive producer and co-star of Web Therapy, Dan Bucatinsky, is also an executive producer on Who Do You Think You Are?. You might know him better as Scandal’s late James Novak.)
The show, which helps celebrities trace their family trees, originally aired on NBC, but the series moved to TLC last summer. And it’s back with new episodes starting this week. Cynthia Nixon, Jesse Tyler Fergusson, Rachel McAdams, Kelsey Grammer and Valerie Bertinelli will explore their roots in the first half of the show’s fifth season. More episodes return this winter.
Howard Lee, TLC’s executive vice president of Production & Development, East Coast, and an executive producer of the show, says the show fascinates so many people because every single one of us is made up from the people from our past. “We don’t know their identities and we don’t know what their stories all were, but that’s what I think is fascinating about this show, and it’s what I think inspires so many people in our audience to watch,” Lee says.
An interesting thing about this show is after a few minutes, the idea that you’re watching a celebrity trace his or her roots floats out of your head, and you become captivated by the true-life stories their research unearths.
“The celebrity part is not the priority when you watch their journey,” he says. “You say to yourself, ‘I recognize Christina Applegate’ or ‘I recognize Cynthia Nixon,’ but you forget about the celebrity aspect and just follow their journey.”
Viewers will notice frequent appearances of the genealogy site Ancestry.com on the show, and commercials for it during the breaks as well. That’s because it’s a research partner of the show, but in many cases, it’s merely a jumping-off point leading celebrities to continue their search of historical documents at libraries, museums and churches around the world.
“What’s so amazing about genealogy is that we’ve always been able to find all of these stories of our past despite the fact that all of our ancestors did not have social media,” Lee says with a laugh. “They did not have Facebook, but were still able to document so many milestones in their lives.”
Most people, celebrities included, have family legends and stories. Even when those happen to be disproven by the research on Who Do You Think You Are?, there’s usually a much more interesting real-life story to be found.
“We do not figure this all out in advance. You cannot believe the amounts of twists and turns that happen when you dig deeper into your past, and you find out about your family,” Lee says. “You have to watch the Cynthia Nixon episode, it’s amazing. You’re going to be floored!”
• Season 5 of Who Do You Think You Are? debuts Wednesday, July 23, at 8 p.m. Central on TLC.
• A Who Do You Think You Are? mini-marathon begins Wednesday, July 23, at noon Central and leads up to the premiere … and continues until 2 a.m., July 24.
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 July 23-29, 2014, issue