TV Review: 'Who Do You Think You Are?'

Last month, Ancestry.com, the Web site that allows users to assemble their family histories using a variety of records databases, announced that in 2009 the company registered just shy of $225 million in revenue. It's a bountiful, yet unsurprising windfall. Of course genealogy is popular: it's a kinder, gentler narcissism, self-absorption disguised as a historical inquiry and an intellectual pursuit. You can't regale friends and associates with tales of your breakthroughs with a plastic surgeon or a past-life regressionist, but genealogical breakthroughs are fair anecdotal game.

Naturally, genealogy, like all popular trends, has burrowed into television. Henry Louis Gates has done several PBS specials under the African-American Livesand Faces of Americabanners. Last Friday, NBC premiered Who Do You Think You Are? a Lisa Kudrow–produced docuseries (borrowed from a British format) in which celebrities (Kudrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Emmitt Smith, and more) trek the globe assembling their family trees. In the premiere, Parker learns the part her ancestors played in such historical events as the California gold rush and the Salem witch trials. It's in these moments that, despite its pedigree, Who Do You Think You Are? feels like a late-night infomercial that has forgotten its station, like a genealogical version of those star-studded Proactiv Solution spots. But when an African-American celebrity steps under the microscope, America's blemishes pop up all over the place.

Emmitt Smith's episode, which airs next week, shows the Hall of Famer tracing his family's roots back to American history too, but naturally, to slavery, our ugliest chapter. This doesn't come as any surprise; any African-American who attempts to trace the family tree will hit that wall eventually, but the more layers Smith peeled back, the more gruesome details he was forced to contend with. Specifically, he has to trace his lineage back to the point at which his forebears were biracial, and from that point, back to the slave masters who owned them. At one point, Smith goes to the slave owner's family plot and asks the historian accompanying him if their mixed-race offspring are buried there as well. No, she tells him, this is a whites-only cemetery; the blacks would probably be buried in an unkempt wooded area off to the side.

It's only during these uncomfortable moments that Who Do You Think You Are? earns its keep, when it makes genealogy look not like an amusing pastime, but as a turbulent and emotional journey into the duskiest corners of American history. Unfortunately, in the seven episodes that compose the season, only two of the participants—Smith and Spike Lee—are people of color. That isn't to say that whites don't have fascinating genealogical stories as well. We're all immigrants after all, and tracing back those roots can be illuminating for anyone. But Who Do You Think You Are? demonstrates that genealogy at its rawest and most confrontational deals with roots planted firmly in American soil.