Tube Talk: My Kind of Reality

By Paula Hendrickson
Television Columnist

Most of the super-popular reality shows don’t interest me. I don’t want to invest lots of time listening to occasionally ”pitchy” singers vie for spots on American Idol, or watch judges tease and taunt each other on The Voice, but I’ll still tune in now and then. And I honestly don’t care what anyone in the Kardashian-Jenner clan is doing, but I have watched a few episodes to see what I’m (not) missing.

Yet there are a few reality shows I actually set my DVR to record. Two returned for new seasons this week: TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and Syfy’s Face Off.

What makes these shows DVR worthy? They’re inspiring.

Who Do You Think You Are, which traces the family tree of a different celebrity each week, returned last Sunday with some shocking revelations about actress Ginnifer Goodwin’s paternal great-grandparents. Seeing the steps involved in unearthing long-buried family secrets is fascinating.

I blame the show — and TLC — for inspiring my growing obsession with genealogy. Last winter they sent me a press kit including a six-month membership to Ancestry.com and an AncestryDNA test. Now I’m hooked. (If you didn’t realize it from watching the show itself, Ancestry.com partners with the show and their researchers aid the show’s research team in preparing the celebrities’ trees and uncovering interesting stories.)

Celebrities yet to come in Who Do You Think You Are?’s brief summer season: Tom Bergeron, Bryan Cranston, Alfre Woodard and J.K. Rowling.

I’m glued to Face Off each week because it’s inspiring to watch the creativity of special effects makeup artists working under pressure. Yesterday I happened to speak with one of the executive producers of the show, Dwight D. Smith, for another article, and I may have geeked out a little bit about how much I enjoy Face Off, but with good reason.

The contestants are given basic parameters — and a tight deadline — to create unique characters that fit a specific scenario and occasional special requirements. Maybe the makeup has to be waterproof, or perhaps they need to incorporate (or avoid) specific materials. What I love is watching the contestants’ creative processed and how they deal with problems that inevitably arise.

“It’s exciting for us to see the amazing things the artists do on the show,” Smith says. “We’ve heard stories about it inspiring people to do this as a career, or inspiring artists to pursue what they love. That means the world to us.”

Last season, the youngest contestant ever – 18-year old cosmetology student, Emily – made it to the finals. The season before that, Dina, a cake decorator from Chicago won; she got her start as a makeup student of season four’s winner, Anthony. What do they all have in common: limitless creativity and the ability to bring their ideas to life.

“In our auditions over the last several seasons. We’ve seen artists say Face Off is what inspired them to get into this field, study it, and audition,” Smith says. “In a sense we’re generating our own contestants, which is great!”

Who Do You Think You Are? and Face Off both prove reality shows can be smart, inspiring, and still very engaging.

Programming Notes:

Who Do You Think You Are? airs Sundays at 8:00 p.m. CST on TLC

Face Off airs Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. CST on Syfy

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