Since premiering on the BBC in 2004, the celebrity genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? has spawned spin-offs in Canada, Australia, and now the U.S. all based on the notion that watching celebrities traces their ancestries is inherently interesting. NBC’s first episode, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, almost makes good on that notion. Returning to her hometown of Cincinnati before branching out to the west then the east, Parker discovers her forebears have connections to both the California Gold Rush and the Salem witch trials. As she visits New England and California to see where the Sarah Jessica Parkers of yesteryear lived, the beginnings of compelling stories about fortune-hunting and religious paranoia emerge. Both narratives could be used to illuminate the history we all share. Instead they mostly serve as a personal reflecting pond for Parker.
Parker isn’t really the problem here, or at least not as great a problem as the series’ keep-it-dramatic music and editing choices. Parker seems genuinely interested in the facts she learns from the historians and genealogists she meets along the way, even if she’s a little too eager to react emotionally to what she’s told. (On learning that the Hodge branch of her family participated in the Salem witch trials, either as an accuser or an accused: “If we were involved I would really want to somehow… And this is, of course, ridiculous… Fix it.” On learning her great-to-the-10th-power grandmother was one of the accused: “Ohhhhh… God!!!”) Unfortunately we spend more time hearing her stock response—“Un. Be. Lievable.”—than learning the details of those stories. The show seems more in awe of its celebrity subject than intrigued by her past or the past in general. Why spend too much time on musty old photographs when Carrie Bradshaw’s right there? In future episodes we learn that—like Parker—Lisa Kudrow, Brooke Shields, Spike Lee, Susan Sarandon and others did not descended fully formed from the heavens but, in fact, had ancestors.