“Who Do You Think You Are?,” NBC’s new version of the British genealogy show, has an important request for the celebrities it features. No, it’s not challenging them to a fight, as the misleadingly confrontational title might have viewers believe. Rather, the documentary-style reality show asks its celebrity participants to take journeys back through time, exploring their family histories. While more sincerely heartfelt than most trips into the personal lives of celebrities, “Who Do You Think You Are?” doesn’t offer enough historical depth to consistently entertain.
“Who Do You Think You Are?”
Fridays at 8 p.m.
The pilot episode depicts Sarah Jessica Parker (“Sex and the City”) searching for traces of deceased relatives across the country. She discovers that her ancestors were involved in the California gold rush of 1849, as well as the 17th-century Salem witch trials. On one hand, SJP’s interest in these chapters of American history and her familial ties to them is surprisingly genuine. She even remarks that her discoveries have made her feel more defined as a person. On the other hand, why does SJP, an already famous and successful person, need NBC’s help to find herself?
It would have been more worthwhile for “Who Do You Think You Are?” to feature regular people and investigate their roots. In doing so, the show could emphasize how seemingly ordinary men and women have descended from people with amazing stories — stories that were an important part of history. Doing this for celebrities only makes them seem more narcissistic rather than historically curious.
And even when the celebs appear enthusiastic, like Emmitt Smith in the series’s second episode, the show doesn’t give the viewer enough context to share in the excitement. The historical events surrounding the lives of the ancestors — even the ancestors’ lives themselves — aren’t dealt with in a meaningful, substantive way. Viewers don’t learn anything new about the 1849 gold rush or Salem witch trials from the pilot, other than that SJP is related to someone who was there.
The show also suffers from not having a host. While certain feel-good reality shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “Extreme Home Makeover” are enhanced by reliable, enthusiastic hosts, “Who Do You Think You Are?” has no one to anchor it, as the featured celebrity is different each week. Throw in the constant, sappy music and it’s easy to feel suffocated by the lack of a familiar face.
Despite its shortcomings, “Who Do You Think You Are” would have something to offer if its participants’ ancestries received more than cursory glances. But until it can teach viewers something they haven’t already learned in third-grade history classes, this genealogy documentary will remain only slightly more essential than any other celebreality show.