‘Follow Your Past’ is too distant from its powerful stories

Monday, March 28, 2016 - 9:05pm

If you asked me about my family’s past, I probably wouldn’t even be able to tell you what my great-grandfather did for a living. But just because I’m not well-versed in my family’s history doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t be interested in knowing more about it. This interest is the premise for the Travel Channel’s new series “Follow Your Past.” The show takes American families on journeys all over the world to explore their personal connections to moments in history that have shaped our world today.

Journalist and author Alison Stewart leads individuals throughout their journeys as they discover their family ties to historical events. At each location, she reveals information about their ancestors that may surprise or move them.

While Stewart’s stories are well-researched and compelling, her delivery of these very personal stories to their respective families lacks the poignancy their journeys deserve. Imagine someone you barely know telling you about a deceased family member you’ve never met. The concept of trying to forge a connection to a historical figure that you have no other connection to outside your bloodline is difficult to navigate on its own. Throw in a complete stranger who mediates the connection to these people while describing their contributions to history, and you have a very sterile experience.

In the series’ second episode, a mother and daughter discover their ties to a Union army soldier who fought in the first battle between Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee as well as a pious young woman who started a petition that led to the end of the Salem Witch Trials. The mother and daughter, who have lived all over the world on missionary trips, doubtlessly have a sense of adventure. The show capitalizes on this by introducing them to their great-great-great grand uncle’s story by putting the two in his shoes — firing muskets with Civil War reenactors in Spotsylvania, VA.

Dressed in wool uniforms, the pair is taught how to load and fire muskets to better understand their ancestor’s struggle fighting off a surprise attack by Confederate soldiers at “The Battle of the Wilderness.” After marching alongside the Union reenactors and drinking coffee out of tin mugs, the mother-daughter duo learns that their ancestor died in battle at just 20 years old. This sobering fact in the context of their present day experiences prompts the mother to reflect on her daughter’s young age and what this loss would have meant to their ancestors.

Though a poignant moment, the emotional impact of their revelation is dulled by the fact that they immediately move on to the story of their next relative without much time to reflect. The moment also seems more like a forced response to the cameras present than a genuine reflection on their experience.

Later on in the episode, the mother begins to cry after finding out that their Salem-based ancestor was hanged after being accused and tried as a witch. Though their predecessor was sentenced to death, she started a petition to counter the accusation, which eventually led to the abolition of the witch trials. While her pride for her family’s contribution to history is apparent, the moment is once again diminished by Stewart’s stoic delivery of the news.

The show has more informational value than narrative or emotional weight. Though its focus is on compelling stories that are personal to average individuals, it fails to make the most of the potential this point of view offers. While the subjects of the series are normal people, not paid actors, their dynamic with Stewart does little to convey their personal relationship to the series. Recreating a series of historical events without the narrative flair of a fiction series can be difficult, but the show does go to some lengths to try to make the stories come to life through the present day individuals they are connected to. If they cash in on this,  the show may find a new way to make history as interesting to its audiences as it is to its subjects.