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Relatively Speaking: 'Who Do You Think You Are' returns to prime time

Dec. 2, 2010 at 6:02 a.m.


By Martha Jones

Good news: "Who Do You Think You Are" is returning to NBC on Friday evenings for its second season beginning at 7 p.m. on Jan. 21.

Last year, the immensely popular series featured celebrities such as football star Emmit Smith, who learned the story of his slave ancestors; director Mike Nichols, who learned the family lore was true - Albert Einstein was a cousin; actress Eva Longoria, who found that her Texas border roots reach back 10 generations; and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who knew little about his family and was stunned to receive an 18th century genealogy that survived China's Cultural Revolution hidden in the wall of a house. Also included were well-known names such as Meryl Street, Stephen Colbert, and Mehnmet Oz, M.D.

Executive producer Lisa Kudrow, of "Friends" fame, saw the original British series while working in Ireland and was determined to bring it to the U.S.

"This show works on so many levels," she says. "The stories are really compelling and connect you to historical events that still impact us all." She adds that celebrities have no idea what they are about to discover or where their destination lies. "You're learning what they're learning when they examine those faded old documents and their reactions are genuine."

As the stories unfold each week in the hour-long series, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates presents a detailed family tree to each celebrity and often dispels family lore, as in the case of Sarah Jessica Parker, who thought her family was of recent immigrant stock. She was shocked to discover an ancestor who survived the Salem witch trials.

Brooke Shields was equally amazed to learn she descends from French kings. Susan Sarandon's grandmother abandoned her family to become a showgirl and was very difficult to trace. Kudrow, herself, traveled to Ilja in modern-day Belarus and wept when she learned the horrifying detail of her great-grandmother's death in a Nazi prison camp.

The first season's seven celebrities were all grateful to learn of their lineages. As Kudrow adds, "It's such a powerful experience."

What viewers do not see, and something that bothered me about the series, was the more than 30 genealogists employed for more than nine months, sometimes working seven days a week, researching the family trees as they uncovered the interesting story lines.

As in all genealogies, some are easier than others, such as Matthew Broderick's Civil War ancestors. And equally true, as Megan Smolenyak, expert genealogist relates, "There is no such thing as a boring family. It's our job to dig deep enough to find the intriguing stories."

E-mail genealogy queries to mjones@vicad.com. VCGS members will research queries requiring extensive study.

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