Thursday, October 10, 2013

Television programs solve mysteries of family histories


Genealogy Roadshow, a new series on PBS, successfully uses the Antiques Roadshow formula: move from city to city, using historical sites as backdrops, and line up crowds interested in solving their familial whodunits.  Then, stand back and watch genealogists unravel the conundrums.

The program delves into the family lines of six or seven people in every program, unlike the popular Who Do You Think You Are? which  explores the ancestries of celebrities.  Co-hosts Joshua Taylor, president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, and Kenyatta Berry, president of the Association of Professional Genealogists, utilize glitzy computer graphics to show pedigree charts that prove or disprove whether someone is related to, say, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.

In other words, Who Do You Think You Are? shows the sometimes-commonplace ancestors of celebrities, while Genealogy Roadshow shows celebrity ancestors—such as Juan Ponce de Leon and Benjamin Franklin—of common folks.

The professional genealogists solve other questions. In one episode, a woman saw photos of a father she’d never known. In another, a woman learned that her father died because he resisted the Nazis in Poland. DNA testing provided answers to another guest.

The series explores race relations, illegitimacy and potentially uncomfortable situations with tact and honesty. Selected guests often seem relieved to hear and understand the truth, and sometimes onlookers (and viewers) wipe away tears. Those emotional moments make Roadshow similar to Who Do You Think You Are?

Tonight at 8 p.m. the show goes to Austin, Texas, for the last of four programs. Others were set in Nashville, Detroit and San Francisco—all are available through PBS on IOS and may be downloaded on Itunes. Or, check local listings for re-broadcast times.

Guests who try out for Genealogy Roadshow submit questions and available documentation, and professionals then do additional research. Genealogy blogger Dick Eastman corresponded with two featured guests, who said they received excellent books detailing the research after the show.

In each city, local historians provide insights on events such as the San Francisco earthquake and fire, and hosts, guests and historians stay in one place. This is different from Who Do You Think You Are? which spirited famous people all over the globe to tell them genealogical facts in their lands of origin.

 NBC launched Who Do You Think You Are? in 2010, sharing ancestries of 27 famous people before cancelling the show in 2012. TLC picked it up and broadcasts it on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Episodes are available via the Internet TLC site. Recently Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory found ancestors in France who share his passion for the arts, and actress Zooey Deschanel discovered an abolitionist ancestor.  

I enjoy both programs.  They add pizzazz—dramatic music and modern media bells and whistles—to the tedious process of research. In reality, if we watched someone trace a family line ten generations back, we’d fall asleep! 

However, as any family history researcher can tell you, it’s the “Aha! Moments” that keep us at it—and both shows have enough of those to make them fun and entertaining. 

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