Friday, March 5, 2010

Faces of America v Who Do You Think You Are

The first episode of NBC's Who Do You Think You Are has aired. Lots of Genea-bloggers are writing their posts, comparing it to PBS's Faces of America, which just completed.

Here's a quick comparison I've come up with:

Who Do You Think You Are: Genealogy Television
Faces of America: Family History Television

What's the difference?

A genealogist searches for vital records, trying to trace back the family tree as far as they can. A family historian is looking for the stories about who those ancestors were. How they lived their lives. An individual can be one, the other, or different parts of both. I think most of us who are obsessed with this pursuit are a little bit of both, but we may weigh the two differently.

I believe Henry Louis Gates Jr., the host (and one of the executive producers) of Faces of America, was attempting to tell the 'family history' of an entire nation by researching the ancestry of a handful of notable individuals. Since this was the purpose, the show didn't focus on the actual research. And the stories were organized, not by individual, but by time period. Each episode took us further back in time for all the subjects. This was confusing to some, because they were expecting a genealogy show, and that isn't what they saw. In the end, the series wasn't about the individuals, and how their ancestry defines them. It was about America, and how our shared ancestry defines us.

Who Do You Think You Are (WDYTYA) is focusing on each celebrity's pursuit of their own genealogy. Along the way, stories of their ancestors are told. However, the focus is on the records that trace the roots from one generation to the next. We see the celebrity travel from one location to the next, talking with local professional genealogists and historians, reacting to the records that are uncovered.

The first episode of WDYTYA was especially interesting to me, as my family background has similarities to Sarah Jessica Parker's. Her father is of Eastern European Jewish descent, and in the show she traces part of her mother's ancestry back to Salem, Massachusetts.

My paternal (and half of my maternal) ancestry is of Eastern European Jewish descent, but I can also trace my maternal ancestry back to Thomas and Katherine Stoughton, and thus to Salem. A first cousin many generations removed is William Stoughton, Chief Magistrate over the witch trials.

I will chime in and agree with something others are saying - and for which I see a very easy fix if the American edition of WDYTYA progresses to a second season. The length of time it takes to do this research isn't being portrayed accurately. Obviously, before Sarah Jessica Parker showed up at libraries or museums to talk with professional genealogists and historians, she contacted them in advance and gave them time to do some research before she arrived. But the viewer has no idea the number of days that have elapsed between each part of the journey. No additional scenes have to be added to the filming -- all we need is a date stamp displayed on the screen.


TK said...

Thanks for sharing your perspective on this, John. I've just finished watching the final episode of Faces, and I saw it, I think, in a different way than I would have before. I think I appreciated it more for being guided to think of it in a different way.

Thomas said...

I agree with most of your review. The only part I don't agree is that "Faces of America" didn't focus on the actual research. To me, the research was the reason to link the 12 people together and to America.