Maybe you’re a fan and haven’t missed a single episode of NBC’s TV Show Who Do You Think You Are? If not, the complete episodes from season two are available on NBC’s site.
My favorite is Gwyneth Paltrow discovering that she’s related to a long line of famous rabbis. She also uncovers the tragedy that scarred one of her grandmothers, making her withdrawn, described by her son as “an ambivalent mother.”
Every episode uncovers surprising emotional material but not necessarily material that is storybook nice. Steve Buscemi finds an ancestor who deserted the army during the Civil War also abandoning his wife and children, leaving them to think he’s dead, while starting another family in another state. A dentist, he eventually dies of tuberculosis–an occupational hazard for dentists of the day.
The episodes center on a celebrity going in search of his/her family history with the help of experts and a camera crew. However, within the stories are suggestions that can apply to anyone interested in discovering his/her family stories. Near the end of her segment, Gwyneth Paltrow turns to the camera and says, “There’s energy in your ancestors, not just facts.”
The car in front of me had an agenda–a bumper sticker I had to read because the light was red: KILL YOUR TELEVISION
I don’t have a problem with television. Or I don’t have the same problem with television as most people do–a waste of time or too much sex or violence. My concern is that television is such a powerful storytelling medium it can replace the real storytellers–our own families.
I was in the third grade when television made it to my part of rural Idaho. My grandparents bought a set as soon as we knew TV was coming. For weeks I watched the screen with fascinated anticipation when the only thing being broadcast was a test pattern for three hours a day.
Of course, as soon as the local station was up and running, I did what everyone my age did. I ran in from school, flopped down on the floor and watched TV westerns. The power of that visual medium was such that I began to think of the American West the way it was being presented on TV—a place of strong men and few women. Never mind that I was growing up on a working ranch that included horses, dogs, sheep, cattle, and three generations of women who had run that place from its beginning. What’s more, this wasn’t ancient history for me. I knew all these women, even my great-grandmother, but the reality, outside my back door, was so different from what was coming in on the television set that I didn’t connect the two. I didn’t assume that they were supposed to be the same.
Our stories are important because they’re “ours.” If we don’t keep telling them, we might find ourselves without stories, just television.