Sarah Jessica Parker launches the US series

By Editor, 6 March 2010 - 4:33pm

US genealogist Kimberly Powell hopes that Who Do You Think You Are? will encourage others to start investigating their family history

Saturday 6 March 2010
Kimberly Powell, professional genealogist and author
Read more about the new US series

It was truly exciting to sit down in front of my television tonight and watch Who Do You Think You Are? on primetime television. What an opportunity to have genealogy play out in front of a national audience! This first episode of the seven episode series featured Sex in the City star Sarah Jessica Parker who apparently assumed that she was of primarily German and Jewish descent and that her roots in America only stretched back to the mid-19th century. “I went into this thinking I'm not connected to anything historical,” she stated during the show. “There's no real link to the past…. I believed in America. I believed in the things I love about being American. But I never felt that I was really American."

She discovers, however, that her roots in America go much deeper… all the way back to colonial Massachusetts and the period just after the arrival of the Mayflower. After a start with family members and the library in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, Sarah Jessica Parker is quickly off on the quest to learn more about two very interesting ancestors – the 4th great grandfather who was involved in the California gold rush and the 10th great grandmother, who was accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials craze.

While I truly enjoyed the stories and the genuine enthusiasm of celebrity Sarah Jessica Parker, I was a bit disappointed by the show’s slow pace and the lack of time actually focused on the family history and research process. An hour-long episode should really have time to delve into more than just two 'focus' ancestors. Primetime reality television in America is, unfortunately, very spoon-fed. The show itself is just 42 minutes plus commercials, versus the full hour for the original British version, with unnecessary “coming up” previews and “recap” segments taking up additional viewing time before and after each commercial break.

In the end, the show was very interesting and will hopefully attract a large following. I loved the genuine empathy and connection that Sarah Jessica Parker appeared to feel for her ancestors; the idea that she was visibly upset to learn that her great-great grandfather, John S Hodge, died of illness before he had the chance to find gold, and that she wanted to “fix it” if she found out that her Salem Witch Trials ancestor, Esther Elwell, “was involved in the worst way.” I also appreciated the wide variety of archives, libraries and historical societies that were featured, along with many of the archivists and researchers who helped her along the way. 

It was definitely cool to see the original 1690s arrest warrant accusing Esther Elwell of being a witch! I was also happy to hear Sarah Jessica Parker publicly state that she found it funny that no one in past generations of her family has ever found the history interesting enough to “want to write this down!” Hopefully at least one person in the viewing audience heard that and will take it to heart.

Yes, I still wish that the show didn’t have to focus on big-name celebrities to bring in an audience, but if Who Do You Think You Are? sends someone to the Internet or the local library or their grandparent’s house to start uncovering their own family history, it has fulfilled its purpose.

 

Take it further

 

The next episode of Who Do You Think You Are? will feature American football legend Emmitt Smith and air on Friday in the US on NBC. You can read more about upcoming episodes here.

 

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