Coming almost 35 years after Alex Haley had everyone wondering about their roots, “Who Do You Think You Are?” is a British format that essentially tries to enliven genealogical navel-gazing with old-fashioned star power. Each week a different celebrity delves into his or her ancestry, yielding hours that manage to be interesting and infuriating all at once — a supreme exercise in vanity that, on cable, would probably have been titled “Celebrity Roots.” Ultimately, the seven episodes play like a more commercial — and certainly more manipulative — version of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s explorations of heredity and identity on PBS.
Combined with the Jerry Seinfeld-produced “The Marriage Ref,” this series — featuring Lisa Kudrow of “Friends” as a producer and one of the celebrity participants — marks the continued recasting of NBC’s 1990s sitcom stars in nonscripted fare. It’s not “doing TV,” I suppose, if you don’t have to read lines.
Not that “Who Do You Think You Are?” isn’t carefully shaped and scripted, as the celebs go on journeys of varying interest — the weakest is perhaps the premiere, with Sarah Jessica Parker. (Oddly, her husband, Matthew Broderick, embarks on his own, separate quest later.)
Sure, it’s mildly intriguing to unearth details about your ancestors, but even allowing that the stars are being good sports here, their reactions often reflect off-putting degrees of self-absorption.
“It’s changed everything about who I thought I was,” exults Parker, who like the rest of the celebrities provides both direct-to-camera and voiceover thoughts about her experience, which only makes it feel like a “Sex and the City” episode.
The program improves mildly as the stakes become more serious, from Kudrow tracking down Eastern European relatives who survived the Holocaust to former NFL star Emmitt Smith visiting Africa after being exposed to DNA testing that determines he’s “81% African.”
Mostly, it’s “Who Do You Think Your Ancestors Were?” tapping in a more historical way into the hunger for biological identity that informed ABC’s “Find My Family” — indulging curiosity about family trees but irritatingly overblown when listening to Brooke Shields gush that knowing more about her ancestors makes her “much more complete as a person.”
As for style, the producers leave no emotional stone unturned. And while blood may be thicker than water, nothing could be gooier than the musical montages that conclude each episode.
The concept has already been popular in the U.K., but the Friday scheduling and glut of self-revelatory celebrity affairs make the program’s future murkier Stateside. That said, don’t rule out a cynical audience embracing the show for its camp factor, what with teases like “Coming up: Sarah Jessica finds out whether her ancestor was accused of being a witch!”
If an actress wants to learn such things these days, all she needs to do is read the tabloids.