Martin Sheen, Who Do You Think You Are?

Welcome to my newest feature, reviews of the NBC show Who Do You Think You Are.  I don’t want to recap episodes per se, but discuss and critique the show as one would a work of literature.  The show at its best (both the NBC version and its British progenitor) is masterwork of history and storytelling, and it should be treated with a comparable level of respect.  Just recapping what happened does not do the work behind the episode justice.  Having said that, I imagine this series will be difficult to follow if you have not seen the show, so by all means go watch it first and then come back.

A caveat:  these posts are a work in progress.  Hopefully by the end of the season I will have found a voice and style, but I imagine that the first few weeks (at least) will have some bumps along the way.  I’m optimistic that I can do it; I’m quite proud of my posts about the Women’s World Cup last year, but looking over them, they definitely improved as the tournament went on.  Suggestions are always welcome although hate mail, not so much (the only hate mail I have ever received was for a post about last season).

Thanks for reading, friend.


The Season 3 premier featured President Josiah Bartlett himself, Martin Sheen.  Because Martin Sheen is far and away the most famous of the celebrities on this season’s lineup (which is rather anemic given who participated in the past two seasons) and because he was the central presence of a hit NBC show, it is fitting that he should be the first celebrity to appear this season.  Unfortunately, for all of Sheen’s star power, this was not the episode with which to start or win converts.

This episode encapsulates for me why the original British series is superior to the American version; it’s all about time.  The British episodes–many available on YouTube–are about 15 minutes longer, and those minutes time make all the difference.  (Check out Kim Cattrall’s episode from the BBC and then compare it to the reedited NBC version.)  The extra time allows for a more leisurely told story and a stronger episode.  Sometimes an American episode is so powerful and excellent, say Lisa Kudrow’s episode in Season 1 or Rosie O’Donnell’s in Season 2, that the missing 15 minutes is not an issue.  However, when the shortened time from is noticeable, boy howdy can an episode go badly.  There is a good reason for this; the BBC is funded by the British taxpayer whereas NBC relies on corporate sponsorship (particularly, and as always there is an unsubtle Ancestry plug during the episode).  So the shortened time frame is necessary, if a little sad.

The other major problem with this week’s episode was the celebrity.  Look, I love Martin Sheen as much as the next liberal, but no matter what project he does, he comes with a blatant political agenda.  I don’t necessarily think that is a problem for him as an actor, but I do believe it colored both his and the show’s perception of the history that was told.  Because Sheen is an activist, his relatives (his two uncles) needed to also be presented as activists.  This is not an egregiously wrong interpretation—Franco was bad, and Ireland should have been freed from British rule–but the history was filtered primarily through a Sheen-colored lens.*

Sheen’s interpretations were particularly claustrophobic because he was the only one telling the story, save for a bit of background by his sister.  I wonder if there were no living cousins to talk to or friends or neighbors who knew Sheen’s uncles when they were old men.  Any genealogist knows that you can only work with the available information, it’s a professional hazard, but the lack of outside perspective was jarring given how recently Sheen’s uncles lived.


The first third of Martin Sheen’s episode focuses on his desire to find out about first his mother’s brother Michael Phelan who fought in the Irish Civil War.  Sheen thought that his uncle was on the side of the Irish Free State, but it turned out that his uncle was a part of the Irish Republican Army (not that one) which opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty.  I admit that I am not as proficient in my Irish history as perhaps I should be, so a lot of the information that I saw on this show was relatively new to me.  Sheen went to a prison where his uncle was sent (not the one Uncle Michael helped burn down), and then the segment ended.

After that Sheen heads over to Spain, the country of his father’s birth.  Sheen’s father’s came from Galicia, a region of Spain that is the begins at the border with Portugal and extends to the Bay of Biscay.  (I also have Galician roots, only the Galicia of my ancestors was in Eastern Europe.)  Galicia is sort of like Portugal’s little brother.

To non-Spaniard, there is one solid Spain, but the truth is that Spain is a relatively weak country in terms of national identity; it’s more like a bunch of little countries (Autonomous communities) held together with shoestring and some glue.  Yes, there is a national “Spain,” but there is also distinct regionalism.  The most strident regional cultural group within Spain are the Basques, and if you follow world politics then you know about ETA.  If you follow Spanish football, then you probably also know that many Catalans also reject Spanish identity; in addition to being a football club, FC Barcelona is a focal point of a distinct Catalan identity, to the eternal frustration of city rival Espanyol (hence the Barcelona motto “more than a club”).  Spanish regionalism is not universal (I imagine the vast majority of Spaniards want there to be one Spain, even if it would improve their Eurovision chances), but regionalism does exist and it is a far stronger force than in other comparable nations.  Franco tried so hard to crush regionalism during his dictatorship, and allowed the speaking only of Castilian Spanish, forbidding other the regional languages (or dialects) of places such as Catalonia and Galicia.**  The Galician language is actually more akin to Portuguese than Spanish, a fact that Sheen alludes to in his Who Do You Think You Are episode when he said that he didn’t speak Spanish let alone the Galician language (Galego/Gallego) that his ancestral records were written in.

Which brings us back to Martin Sheen.  Sheen’s birth name was actually Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez.  Ramón used the stage name “Martin Sheen” although he never changed the name officially.  It’s why one son is Emilio Estévez (who made an appearance in the episode and looks awful) and another son was born Carlos Estévez but took the name Charlie Sheen (and to my disappointment did not make an appearance).

Sheen’s first search in Spain was to find about his father’s youngest brother Matías Estévez Martinez, who fought in the Spanish Civil War and like Michael Phelan was also imprisoned in unspeakable conditions.  Matías was a Communist and he opposed the rise of Franco (who coincidentally was also from Galicia) and fought against the Generalissimo’s coup.  For Matías’s efforts, he was captured, given the name El Rato or “The Mouse,” and sentenced by a military tribunal to life imprisonment.   After four years he was freed, but effectively under house arrest for another quarter century or so.

The Franco regime was evil, and no doubt Matías’s life was awful in ways that I cannot comprehend, but there was something a little bit disingenuous about Sheen’s statement that his uncle was “sentenced for his beliefs.”  It’s not true; Matías was sentenced for his actions not his beliefs.  Yes, Matías was on the right side, and yes, he was tried and convicted by an illegal, Fascist, militaristic kangaroo court, but Matías fought Franco rather than just speak out against the Fascists.  I would think that Sheen, an activist in his own right, would understand the difference, and more importantly, appreciate it.

Finally Sheen tracks down his father’s ancestry, and discovered that his 3rd great-grandmother was the illegitimate daughter of Maria Antonia Gonzalez and Don Diego Francisco Suárez, the local magistrate and town big shot.  (Don is effectively the Spanish equivalent of the English “Sir.”)  Suárez was a married man but had six illegitimate children with Gonzalez who kept them hidden until three years after the magistrate died, when they were finally baptized.  Sheen interprets Maria’s actions as loyalty, others are less convinced.  Sheen also learned that Suárez used the force of his office to prosecute a woman named Antonia Pereira for having an affair with a town cleric and an abortion.  Sheen decries the hypocrisy of Suárez (to stirring music practically lifted from the West Wing) for attempting to prosecute Pereira despite having adulterous relations himself, although it actually seems like the crime was the abortion rather than the adultery.  Given that his mistress bore him six illegitimate children, it is safe to assume that Suárez most certainly did not believe in abortion.  More likely, issues of gender, religion, and probably class rather than hypocrisy are what factored into Suárez’s motivation for prosecuting Pereira.

Then came the big reveal–Suárez was the ancestor of Sheen’s grandmother and Sheen’s grandfather was the descendant of… Antonia Pereira.  What a coincidence!  To some extent it is, but it is not the coincidence that the show made it out to be.  It seems entirely likely to me that in a small region of a relatively impoverished area, a married couple’s ancestors would have had some dealings with each other.***  Whether we can trace it or not, at some point all our family trees stop branching and start bottlenecking, and with good reason.  There simply weren’t enough people alive in history and prehistory for each human being’s millions upon millions of ancestors to have been completely distinct individuals.  Somewhere along the line, we are all our own cousins (all the more likely given that travel is far easier than it used to be.)  We are all, after all, descendants of Mitochondrial Eve.

Another way to think about this non-coincidence.  The Suárez’s attempt to prosecute Pereira occurred about 150 years before Sheen’s grandparents married. In our day and age, 150 ago Americans fought in the Civil War.  How many of your Civil War-era ancestors do you know of, let alone their occupations or grudges?  If your family came from a small area where people rarely moved from, doesn’t it seem likely that at least one ancestor had dealings with another?  Maybe it need not be Hatfield/McCoy type antagonism, but nevertheless, it is inevitable that paths do cross.


Let me end by saying that even a not-great episode of Who Do You Think You Are is still decent television.  The British series too had its clunkers, so this is not a case of NBC and Ancestry ruining a good thing.  But I do look forward to next week’s episode.  Perhaps someone who is not so larger-than-life and not so wedded to his own politics will make for a more entertaining story.


*  Who Do You Think You Are has a history of doing this (British and American).  Last season, Steve Buscemi tracked down an ancestor who from all the evidence seemed like a reprehensible cad, although Buscemi interpreted his behavior as clinical depression–a malady that ran in his family.  On one hand, it’s understandable; we all tell ourselves private lies about our family members to reconcile the good with the bad, and while each episode is television, it is also a revelation of the deeply personal.  On the other hand, no history is above critique, and interpretation is always subject to scrutiny.

** The Basque language is completely different from other of Spain because it is neither of Latin nor even of Indo-European origin; scholars don’t know where exactly the Basque language came from or how it got to Spain, although it probably predated the Latin invasion.

*** Sheen’s discovery reminds me of the very famous case of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., a seminal case that every law student learns in his or her first year Torts class.  Without boring you with the details of the case, it centered around an injury sustained by a woman named Helen Palsgraf.  The case went all the way to the New York Court of Appeals, that state’s highest court, where the majority of the judges held that the law did not favor Palsgraf.  The opinion was written by Chief Judge Benjamin Cardozo, one of the nation’s foremost legal minds, and a future Supreme Court Justice.  Because of that opinion, Cardozo and Palsgraf are forever linked in history, but in his biography of Cardozo, Andrew L. Kaufman discovers another way that the two are connected: the great-grandson of Mrs. Palsgraf married a distant cousin of Cardozo’s.


3 responses to “Martin Sheen, Who Do You Think You Are?

  1. Pingback: Marisa Tomei, Who Do You Think You Are? | tracingthetree

  2. Pingback: Jerome Bettis, Who Do You Think You Are? | tracingthetree

  3. Pingback: Kelly Clarkson, Who Do You Think You Are? | tracingthetree

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