Friday, March 5, 2010

Celebrity History

NBC premiered a new show on celebrity genealogy tonight, a few weeks after PBS premiered its series on the same topic (different celebrities) in mid-February.

Who knew celebrity genealogy could make such compelling television?

The NBC show, "Who Do You Think You Are?", follows famous people (tonight, Sarah Jessica Parker) as they learn more about their family history with the help of professional genealogists, historians, and -- an "official partner."

I cringed at the product placement stuff, but at least offers a two-week free trial of their service. And overall, the show's not bad. Sarah Jessica Parker traveled to Ohio, California and Massachusetts to explore her ancestors' lives, learning about the California gold rush and the Salem witch trials along the way.

The PBS show, "Faces of America," is hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. If you watch only one, watch Gates' series.

On this show, Gates is the one who does the heavy lifting, preparing a scrapbook of family history for each celebrity, traveling to important sites, and interviewing the celebrities and their families about their lives. But Gates offers serious historical context as well, and tackles tough issues like the Japanese internment during World War II (Kristi Yamaguchi's parents were both imprisoned).

Hopefully all this celebrity genealogy will help inspire people to pay closer attention to their own history. As Gates says in the first episode of his show, "Sometimes when we read about the great events of history, we forget that history was lived by our very own ancestors."

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