Who Do You Think You Are?: Season One
by Jef Burnham
Now available on DVD from Acron Media.
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Originating as a concept on the BBC, the documentary series, Who Do You Think You Are?, follows celebrities as they travel across the country and around the world to investigate their families’ histories. Season one of the American version featured here tracks seven such celebrities on the trail of their ancestors in this highly engaging series. The celebrities in question are Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City), the Dallas Cowboys’ Emmitt Smith, Susan Sarandon (Thelma and Louise), director Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing), Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Brooke Shields (Suddenly Susan), and Lisa Kudrow (Friends).
To me, Who Do You Think You Are? seems an unlikely series to be given a DVD release. Unless you’ve an extreme fascination with one or more of the season’s featured stars, I suspect you’ll find the rewatch value of this particular set incredibly low. The series boasts predictably high levels of sentimentality accentuated by its incessant, triumphant score. And much of the work done by the celebrities in the tracing of their ancestry amounts to little more than sitting down with someone who’s already paid for an ancestry.com account.
To make matters worse, each episode in the set begins with an identical summary of the entire, 7-episode season, and maintains the pre-commercial teasers for what’s going to happen after the non-existent commercial break. As for the season summary, I expected to see these removed from episodes 2-7 for the DVD release, or at the very least be encoded as their own chapters on the DVD. Instead, you find yourself forced to fast forward through them every time, since the DVDs were authored in such a way that you can’t simply skip to the next chapter without losing 6 minutes of the episode. With regard to the teasers, these too should have been removed for the release, or at least be optional viewing. After all, there’s no need to entice those watching the DVD not to change channels during commercials, for there are no commercials. As is, the presence of the teasers is akin to watching the series with a person who’s constantly prodding you to “watch this part!” They are minor annoyances to be sure, but they undermine one of the basic attractions of watching a show on DVD rather than broadcast TV— which is to say, not having to be bothered by breaks in the program.
That being said, the series itself makes for a surprisingly rewarding viewing experience, in that it provides a personal historic context for these figures of popular culture. Moreover, it has the potential to inspire its viewers to investigate their own ancestry, thereby becoming more historically aware individuals. I found my initial viewing of the season to be highly enjoyable, and since emotions obviously run high throughout, it’s incredibly easy to get sucked in and stay invested. (That is, providing you can cope with the aforementioned annoyances.) Every episode has something to offer in the way of an individualized historical perspective. And the best of episodes in my estimation were those following Spike Lee, who uncovers his family’s slave ancestry, and Susan Sarandon, who searches for her long-since vanished grandmother. Additionally, the Sarah Jessica Parker episode proves to be quite fascinating as she discovers family’s roots in the Salem Witch Trials.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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