Season 2 of Who Do You Think You Are (the American version) ended tonight with Ashley Judd’s discovery of one ancestor who fought in the Civil War and another who was William Brewster (a Mayflower passenger and a founder and leader of the Plymouth Colony.)
Overall, this season has been very affecting–Rosie O’Donnell, Lionel Ritchie, and Vanessa Williams each had extremely moving stories. Kim Cattrall’s episode was also extremely good, but I first saw it on YouTube in its (longer and more detailed) British form. I was less in love with Tim McGraw’s episode, but it was decent. However, the season sort of tailed off in the end. The final three episodes weren’t so strong and for different reasons. Steve Buscemi’s story just did not grab me, and there was some bad genealogy going on–Buscemi leapt to some pretty wild and unsupportable conclusions.
I wanted to like Gwyneth Paltrow’s episode, but I just don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow. It was especially disappointing because in two seasons, only Lisa Kudrow and Paltrow have explored their Jewish roots, a topic very close to my heart.
Ashley Judd was done no favors by the editing. (And since when did Ashley Judd count as one of America’s most beloved celebrities? I guess it was around the same time that Spike Lee was given the same status.) Her constant refrain of loving social justice was grating enough. But what really bothered me was the completely unironic way spoke about religious tolerance and her ancestor William Brewster.
I like Who Do You Think You Are. It is very rare for a show to teach history in such an entertaining fashion. And bravo to these celebrities for exposing their lives and emotions in such a personal way. Yet the show fell into a very lazy trap–it perpetuated the myth of the Pilgrims.
In most American elementary history classes, schoolchildren are taught about the Pilgrims (not Puritans or Separatists, mind you) who wanted to leave England because they were being oppressed for worshiping the way the wanted. So the Pilgrims sailed on the Mayflower to Plymouth Rock where they met the Indians who helped them survive the winter, and they all had the first Thanksgiving.
That’s a completely oversimplified and whitewashed story that makes the Puritans and the Separatists (Puritans who wanted to separate from the Church of England instead of reforming it) look so much kinder than they were. In England the Puritans formed the backbone of the rebellion that led to the English Civil War, the execution of King Charles I, and Cromwell’s Protectorate. In both England and America, the Puritans (and I do not recall anyone using the words Puritan in the show) were some of the most intolerant people in religious history. For all of Ashley Judd’s social consciousness, she didn’t bother to go through the rest of the story. These same people who wanted religious freedom from the Church of England didn’t want to give it to anyone else including but not limited to Quakers, Catholics, Native Americans, their slaves (that’s right, they had slaves.) Connecticut and Rhode Island were founded by people who wanted to get the hell away from the Puritans. Now granted much of this came after William Brewster, but that was more a matter of timing than anything else.
I have been watching episodes of the British version on YouTube. For the most part, the British version is stronger. It’s not surprising because the British version lasts for a commercial free hour, which means a continuous story for nearly 60 minutes. There are no teasers or recaps before and after the commercial breaks, and thus the narration isn’t as intrusive. It’s not the American show’s fault; there are limits that the British show doesn’t have.
All that being said, Who Do You Think You Are is still one of the two shows I go out of my way to make sure I watch (30 Rock is the other.) And I will continue to do so for as long as NBC keeps showing it.