The new PBS show Faces of America (FoA) is helping to bring genealogy and family history to the masses just a bit more. I watched the episode online at pbs.org. Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., it examines the family history of twelve celebrities. After having seen many episodes of BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA), my review is going to compare the two shows.
I really like WDYTYA. My first exposure to the show was the David Tennant episode (I’m a Doctor Who fan), which was soon followed by several other episodes with Jewish or Eastern European backgrounds, as that is where my research tends to go. To me, that show defines the distinction between genealogy and family history: genealogy is the pursuit of information whereas family history is about trying to gather the stories. Each episode follows one celebrity on their quest to learn more about their family history. It looks to me like most episodes have professional research done beforehand and the celebrity is usually guided through their history, although they are occasionally shown looking through documents, and some clearly do at least some of the work themselves.
In FoA, all of the work is done for them. Some documents and photos are presented to each celebrity in a book and Gates is shown visiting the ancestral locations, so it shows that work has to be done to do the research. (As opposed to those old TV commercials where someone types their name into a web site and the whole family history just magically pops up.) But it also completely removes the celebrities from the research themselves. In one case, Kristi Yamaguchi’s father was taken back to Poston, the internment camp where he was located to during the war, but Kristi didn’t go to see it. In WDYTYA, she would have gone herself.
Another thing I liked less about FoA was the jarring effect of pursuing the histories of twelve different people in one episode. Not all twelve were pursued in this episode, but keeping track of whose family was being talked about required a bit of extra attention to not be confused. This might be good for the general audience, to keep it interesting and dynamic, but the genealogist in me would rather see one history pursued at a time. As a professional researcher, keeping track of multiple avenues of research for myself and my clients is one of the biggest difficulties, and this show tossed me around in that way.
Overall, I did enjoy the show, learning a bit about different bits of history that I don’t usually pursue because they are not in the stories of my family or my clients. I look forward to the rest of the series.