Finding Your Roots vs. Who Do You Think You Are

For those not familiar, these are two shows about genealogy.

Finding Your Roots is on PBS stations in the US, and is hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In each episode two or three fairly well-known people (actors, athletes, TV news anchors, and so on) are presented with a big book of their previously unknown ancestors, plus a big family tree at the end. The source materials are existing records such as census, birth, death and marriage records, newspaper accounts and wills, plus DNA for certain things.

Who Do You Think You Are is a show from the UK, and I have only ever seen it on YouTube, where they chop it up into segments so that it’s hard to get the whole story. It shows a completely different process – the famous person/guest goes around to the various places their families lived and consult with genealogists at each place to try to piece the family story together. They generally come back at the end and share what they’ve found with their immediate families. Some of my favorites that I’ve seen are Patrick Stewart and Olivia Colman.

Pros for Finding Your Roots: you get a fairly compact and yet thorough and extensive story in 30 minutes or less per person. There’s no way of telling whether the facts have been arranged to be more entertaining, I suspect they routinely are. But everything we see is supported by documentation of some kind.

Cons for Finding Your Roots: they propagate the notion that who you are is virtually entirely due to actions and character traits of some of your ancestors. Gates has the very annoying habit of asking the guest “How does that make you feel” after every revelation, especially if they aren’t emotional enough. And fairly trivially, they show the same “here we are doing research” clips every single show.

Pros for Who Do You Think You Are: it seems a little less manipulated and more visceral and real. The guest often talks to the camera when they are driving to the next place and that feels fairly unrehearsed. Sometimes you find out really surprising things, like when John Hurt found out that, contrary to his lifetime’s beliefs, his background is not Irish, or when Olivia Colman found out she had a woman ancestor from India who was treated very badly by the man who made her pregnant.

Cons for Who Do You Think You Are: I couldn’t really think of any, except that so many of their guests are people I don’t know anything about to start with. That seems to take the edge of interest off that episode for me.

Does anyone watch either or both of these shows? Do you enjoy them? Are you interested in your own genealogy (I am, a little)?

There’s also a U.S. version, which originally ran on NBC, then moved to TLC, and is now coming back to NBC. Lisa Kudrow is one of the executive producers of the US version.

I’ve watched a few episodes of the U.S. version of Who Do You Think You Are?, and quite a few of Finding Your Roots. I enjoy the latter series more, as I find the storytelling about the subject’s ancestry to be better-done, and less of an ad for (which is a sponsor of the other series).

I’ve seen parts of a couple of episodes of some other program that I thought was sponsored by, and that was awful, nearly unwatchable. I may have been very mistaken about the sponsor, I didn’t stick around long enough to find out. That’s one nice thing about the UK series, that there is no particular axe to grind or company to promote (that I have seen).

Ancestry is certainly a sponsor of the Australian version of Who do you think you are?

I’ve some of these and the UK version, and agree that it definitely helps to at least recognise the featured subject. The dialogue with the host was not staged or over-egged and their reactions at the lives and fates of various ancestors seemed genuine [but with Oscar-winning Olivia Coleman how would you ever know??? She’s that good].

I’ve seen both shows, and prefer Finding Your Roots. I even don’t mind Gates’ “How does that make you feel”, as some of the celebs are sports figures who aren’t accustomed to expressing their emotions. Actors, on the other hand, don’t usually need such prodding, like Mandy Patinkin breaking down when it was revealed that a segment of his family was murdered in the Holocaust.

The only thing that bothers me is that they jump back and forth between the celebs in each episode. I’d rather they stick with one at a time.

But I really enjoy the show, even when it’s about people I never heard of. I’d love to have Gates discover the secrets of my own family.

Being the historian for my family makes me really appreciate “Finding Your Roots”. Gates’ research team is world class. I am amazed by some of the trivial details they find.