Family Shows

By Nick D'Alto Premium

Ever since Ozzie met Harriet, television has been about families — played by celebrities, of course. But this fall, television’s theory of relativity takes a whole new spin on NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”

This genealogy-based reality series, produced by former “Friends” star Lisa Kudrow and her Is or Isn’t Entertainment production company, will detail the real family pasts of TV and film celebrities. NBC’s order for the series was contingent upon producers’ finding compelling celebs (unnamed at press time).

America’s first commercial network foray into genealogy boasts a pedigree of its own: It’s the offspring of the hugely successful BBC version <>, whose fourth-season premiere attracted 6.8 million viewers. Since 2004, Brits have stayed glued to their tellies as personalities including Nigella Lawson and Jeremy Irons discovered their ancestral kin. In the process, the audience witnessed illuminating backstories ranging from wartime heroism to tabloid-worthy scandals.

Even the famous are curious about their family histories. Lawson, a comely Food Network chef and heiress, learned she’s British in part because a Dutch ancestor fled unjust imprisonment. Classic English actor Irons turns out to be part Irish through his great-grandmother.

The personal connections can prove touching: In the series’ Canadian version <>, Margot Kidder (Lois Lane to Christopher Reeves’ Superman) glimpsed the roots of her bipolar disorder and her unruly streak in her great-grandmother — the first woman in Nelson, British Columbia, to drive a car and smoke in public.

“It’s about people trying to figure out a sense of identity,” US version creator Alex Graham tells the Hollywood Reporter, “and we’ve discovered it’s an emotional journey. Everybody has a great story… it’s incredibly moving.”

Expect his “Who Do You Think You Are?” to take a familiar format: Engaging hosts shepherd famous faces through an activity they’re unaccustomed to. Think “Dancing With The Stars,” but with the celebrity guests squinting at old census records instead of rehearsing the rumba. Participants also will interview family members, take road trips to halls of records, and read clues in fading daguerreotypes. Each star’s family story is set against a tableau of American history, introducing viewers to the real-life Waltons, Cartwrights and Jeffersons who fathered both our nation and our favorite prime-time VIPs.

So with genealogy airing in TV’s family hour, will deciphering Victorian marriage registers replace who got booted off “American Idol” as water-cooler gossip? The lure of famous faces should surely help.

Just don’t yell at your TV if the stars’ brick walls fall with ease and their family stories wrap up as neatly as an episode of “The Brady Bunch.” This is Hollywood, after all. Still, here’s a program with the potential to gather the entire family around the TV — including Great-great-grandma.

Must-See TV

This isn’t the first time genealogy has been television fodder west of the Atlantic. If you haven’t already caught these shows, check local listings or look for the DVD:

“African-American Lives

<>: Public television’s 2005 award-winner traced family tales of Maya Angelou, Morgan Freeman and other legends. Encored by “Oprah’s Roots” (2006) and “African-American Lives II” (2007), the series put genetic genealogy in the public vocabulary. Order DVDs from <>.

“Ancestors in the Attic

<>: In this fast-paced series, Canada’s History Television host Jeff Douglass and a cast of “CSI”-type genealogy sleuths help ordinary people discover their sometimes-extraordinary pasts. A Back to the Future sensibility captivatingly connects past and present, as when the team used a painting in Quebec’s National Gallery to confirm a Vancouver woman’s ancestor lent compassionate aide to the dying Gen. James Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec.

Roots Television

<>: Genealogy video comes to your computer on this Internet TV station offering full-length and short segments on topics such as cemetery sleuthing, family history conferences and genealogy humor. Or be a star yourself on the site’s Roots Tube channel, where you can post family reunion videos or the oral history you just camcorded. The popular site recorded almost a half-million video views from its October 2006 launch to December 2007.

From the September 2008 Family Tree Magazine.

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