Saturday, 6 March 2010

WDYTYA US style

The first episode of the first US series shown on NBC, and carried on CityTV in Canada, stuck very much to the original British model. I enjoyed it.

Sarah Jessica Parker played the role of the person following her roots with seeming spontaneity as discoveries about events in her family past were revealed. You have to throw off the idea that the program should show the nitty gritty work on the family history search as that doesn't make for good TV. Accepting that, the program did demonstrate some good practice -- starting with information held in the family and working backwards.

What surprised me was the implication in the story that in order to feel "American" you have to be able to trace a branch of your family back to a significant event in US history, in this case the California gold rush. Links to the Salem witch trials, which pre-date the US, were a bonus. On that basis nobody with a history in the US less that 150 years would seem to qualify as being able to feel truly American! Apparantly one such root is all it takes as the many more ancestors on SJP's father's side of the family, and her mother's father side, did not appear to enjoy such deep roots in the county.

2 comments:

Persephone said...

They might also do well to point out that it is extremely rare for researchers to be allowed to handle documents, or to get nice, explanatory one-on-one sessions with experts. Unless you attend Anglo-Celtic Connections conferences, of course...

The implication of what it takes to "feel American" seemed to come from Parker herself, although the show producers did choose to end with it. I had the feeling that the point of the show was to illustrate how Parker and her family go from the attitude that no one interesting could possibly be in their family tree to embracing the idea that events can make ordinary people extraordinary and that we all share that connection with history.

Also she had assumed that her family story was that of recent immigrants, only to discover that she was also connected with much earlier historical American events. She said, "This changes everything!" I believe she meant her assumptions, which is surely what family history research ends up doing for all of us. I felt Parker's reactions were genuine.

Those are the impressions I carried away from the programme. Of course, your point about the slog of family history being glossed over is probably the most important, but I notice they do the very same thing with home decoration shows which are far less realistic.

GW said...

I enjoyed the program as well, Americans certainly seem to have more funds to invest in such a series. The CBC seemed to balk at the idea that a family history program could be popular and restricted it to a half hour. And there was a wealth of information in some cases. For example, the Don Cherry episode could easily have filled an hour and while it was an interesting look at the history of the Cherry family, much was left on the cutting room floor.

On another note, in the American program, Parker seems to have forgotten or not known (or didn't care)about her British roots ... much was made of Robert Elwell, the first of her family to be identified in "America", but given his dates, he was British born and he died in a colony of the Mother Country. I wonder what happened to other family members at the time of the Revolution ... did they all remain loyal Americans?

It was a good start to the series and I look forward to the forthcoming profiles. I wonder if any of them will have a Canadian connection.