Friday, March 5, 2010

WDYTYA: The first installment

When I was living in a scholarship house at Florida State University back in the mid-1960s, one of the other girls in the house would say that something had her "surprised and pleased."

Tonight's debut episode of Who Do You Think You Are? has me "surprised and pleased." They have done it the way I wish Henry Louis Gates had done it! They stuck with one person through the hour, the person herself -- Sarah Jessica Parker -- did actual travel on the trail of her ancestors, from New Jersey to Cincinnati, Ohio, to Eldorado, California, to Salem, Massachusetts. They had real genealogists and real librarians and real historians showing a little bit of the process (you cannot show the entire process in one television hour) of research, and they had Ms. Parker making the acutal discoveries in some instances, rather than just sitting at a table and being handed a book. Sorry, Dr. Gates -- I think WDYTYA has it right.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether this level will continue, but I think it has a good chance. As my husband observed, they "de-celebritied" the thing pretty quickly, taking the right tack and concentrating on the search for ancestors. I still would like to see them use plain people, too, but for a show using a celebrity, this one was well and intelligently done.

I would like to see more emphasis on the correct use of records and the correct citation of sources, but that's pretty dull stuff for the TV audience, I guess. (I also wish that every census sheet had the gorgeous handwriting of that 1850 Eldorado census!). They did rather gloss over the establishment of connection between her ancestors John E. and John S. Hodge, but again, they just can't show the entire process in a television hour.

I am, indeed, surprised and pleased.


Julia, IBSSG said...

How I feel about the issue:

As much as I'd like to tell the "WDYTYA" show's producers, "Pick me! Pick me!", I'm afraid that the only people who would watch are my cousins. The market reality is that the celebrity names are what draw the viewers.

I consider this show a baby step - just to get people interested in genealogy in the first place and show them that it can be done. The details, like learning to write citations, will come later for them.

To Dr. Gates' enormous credit, the series he's produced are poetic and visually beautiful. His ability to draw parallels and sweeping arcs of connection brings tears to my eyes. His series are meant for a different audience, the genealogically sophisticated. For me, he simply does it so much better. He's totally awesome!

While jumping between "clients'" stories may appear disjointing at first, it's because each episode has an overall theme that would be lost if the stories unfolded linearly: "the dynamic and shifting relationship America had with her new immigrants in the 20th century", "the many journeys to becoming American that defined the “Century of Immigration” (1820s – 1924)", "the story of the peopling of the New World", "the search for the guests’ ancestries where the historical record leaves off".

Also to Dr. Gates' credit, he did the genealogy of a very nice "civilian" in "African American Lives 2".

All things considered, if ever given the choice in a fantasy delusion between the two shows, I'd rather have Dr. Gates, "Pick me! Pick me!"

Karen Packard Rhodes said...

Excellent comments, Julia, and thank you for expressing them here. I hadn't thought of it that way, and I should take another look, when I finally come up for air. Spring Break is next week, but I fear I'm going to spend that doing laundry! LOL!