LOS ANGELES — Watching Sarah Jessica Parker widen her eyes and discuss the unsettling discovery that one of her ancestors was accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials, it’s difficult not to giggle and wonder where all this gravity was when she was prancing around with Bette Midler in “Hocus Pocus.”
But then that’s the risk when you base a television show on the genealogical searches of our “most beloved stars” — it’s no longer enough that we know the brand of stroller that Parker and husband Matthew Broderick (who will be featured later) use; now we need to dig deep into their family trees.
It’s a risk NBC is willing to take with “Who Do You Think You Are?,” an American version of the popular British series, though you do have to wonder if Parker was the best choice for the premiere. Yes, she has ancestors involved in two major American events — a relative left the family’s Cincinnati home for California as part of the Gold Rush — but during the many clips of Parker walking down various streets looking pensive, thoughts about the cunning hats, the ridiculous heels, that now-signature runway walk continually distract.
And though Parker does her best to appear moved and humbled by the difficult and even tragic lives of her ancestors, the show is all about her, after all, forcing the uncomfortable question: If everything happens for a reason, did all this American drama occur to ensure the existence of “Sex and the City,” or even worse, “Did You Hear About the Morgans?”
It’s not fair to blame Parker, of course — who wouldn’t jump at the chance to have someone else organize and pay for an authoritative search into your genealogy? But as is so often the case with “reality television,” there’s nothing TV producers hate so much as actual reality (bo-ring!), and so everything is tarted up with superfluous soundtracks and staging, with breathless voice-overs, mood lighting and lots of half-baked psychology.
Brooke Shields joined the show to learn more about her mother’s mother, a woman she never liked. When it turns out that Shields’ grandmother lost her own mother at 10, the actress quickly surmises that the girl became mother to her younger siblings. And when it is revealed that one of those siblings drowned at 13, Shields instantly concludes that her grandmother felt guilty, experiencing the loss of not just a brother but also a son, all of which explains why Grandma was so mean to Mama Teri.
Well, OK, if that makes you feel better, but those are mighty big leaps. And did Shields really have to stand beside the Passaic River, gazing soulfully into the sunset? Surely the simple notations on the death certificate and the newspaper story describing the drowning were much more effective.
Of course, how you feel about each journey is predetermined by how you feel about the star — not surprisingly, my favorite segment of the four I saw was the one in which Susan Sarandon searches for her mysterious grandmother Anita. (That she gets to take a trip to Tuscany along the way doesn’t hurt either.)
The power of “Who Do You Think You Are?” does not lie in the celebrity but in the much more dramatic nature of “ordinary” life. Residents of 21st century America cannot be reminded often enough of how easy so many of us have it compared with previous generations. As anyone perusing their own genealogy knows, the infant mortality rate of even a few generations ago is shocking to the modern sensibility.
But viewers are not allowed a moment to contemplate such things or even to wonder about the often disturbing lack of familial communication before being whisked away to the next “Oh, my gosh” moment. That so many of these celebrities, with their wiki-pages and Us Weekly montages, appear to know so little of their almost immediate heritage is astonishing, proof that nothing is more democratic than the past.