For those who may be unfamiliar with the premise of Who Do You Think You Are?, it is a program that traces the family trees of various celebrities. The second season of the NBC series has just been released by Athena, and is as fascinating as the first was. The two-DVD, eight-episode set features Vanessa Williams, Tim McGraw, Rosie O’Donnell, Kim Cattrall, Lionel Richie, Steve Buscemi, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Ashley Judd. One of the misconceptions I had when first watching this series was that my enjoyment of each episode would depend on my level of interest in whoever was being profiled. As it turned out, that was not the case at all.
For example, the first episode of the season focuses on Vanessa Williams. While she is undeniable a beautiful and talented woman, I am not what you would really call a big fan. Yet I was thoroughly intrigued by her story. One of the first revelations is when she discovers that her great great grandfather had fought in the Civil War, for the Union. Apparently things were so desperate when he signed up that he was given a “bounty” (bonus) of $300 to enlist. That was a fair amount of money at the time. The very next day he spent $200 of it to purchase land for his family in Oyster Bay, New York. No matter what happened to him, they were provided for.
Vanessa had always been curious about why they had settled in that area, and there was the answer. Her great-great grandfather did survive by the way by the way, but there were plenty more revelations to come.
In contrast to my interest in Vanessa Williams’ life, I am an unabashed fan of Steve Buscemi. When I see his name on a TV show or movie, it is almost always a winner. Take a look at his latest HBO series, Boardwalk Empire, for the most recent confirmation of this. Yet his family history might have been interesting to some, but it didn’t really do a whole lot for me. Suffice to say that there is a lot of depression in the Buscemi family tree.
Once again, my expectations as a fan, or not a fan were upended when it came to Rosie O’Donnell. She is another performer who I have never really been drawn to, but her story was pretty interesting. As one might expect from the name O’Donnell, her lineage begins in Ireland. But it is a convoluted route that her family took when fleeing in desperation from the deadly potato famine.
What Who Do You Think You Are? proves without question is that no matter how famous a person is, they cannot escape their family history. In a way, the show is almost a weekly, one-hour advertisement for Ancestry.com, whose site is used extensively. But it is never gratuitous. In fact what I think the program does better than anything is to get us “un-famous” couch-potatoes to start thinking about our own family histories.
Some of the discoveries the people find are incredible. This is a very entertaining series, and since each episode is self-contained, it makes for a very convenient viewing experience. You don’t necessarily need to sit down for the full eight hours at once to enjoy it which is something I have done before. Who Do You Think You Are? is a very good series and well worth a look.