Able was I, ere I saw Elba
On Who Do You Think You Are, there are two basic kinds of episodes; for the sake of ease let’s call them the general and the specific. In the general episode, the celebrity in question knows practically nothing about his or her family, and the episode centers around getting as much information as possible (a la Brooke Shields). In the specific episode (Kim Cattrall’s being the quintessential example), the celebrity usually has some knowledge about his or her genealogy and tries to unravel a family mystery or prove (or disprove) a story. To some extent, each episode by necessity is a mixture of the general and the specific, but usually they skew one way–sometimes heavily so.
This week’s episode leaned specific. Marisa Tomei went to Italy to solve the mystery surrounding the death of her maternal great-grandfather Francesco Leopoldo Bianchi who died when her own grandfather–Leopoldo’s son–was a toddler. The family legend was that he was murdered for being a philanderer and a reprobate. Tomei also wanted to learn about the family of her maternal great-grandmother Adelaide Canovaro who was from the island of Elba.
A full confession before I recap the episode: I am a big fan of Marisa Tomei and have been since her days playing of Maggie Lauten on “A Different World.” In as much as one puts faith in the Oscars–and longtime readers know that I hate awards shows–Tomei absolutely deserved hers. Every scene in “My Cousin Vinny” with Mona Lisa Vito is worth watching solely because of Tomei. The fact that her deserved Oscar win became something of punchline only underscores Hollywood’s hypocrisy; on one hand the Hollywood press moan and wail that comedy is never taken seriously by the Academy, but then when a truly gifted comedienne wins for a luminous comedic performance, they trash her–all the more so because she bested four (admittedly brilliant) British actresses. The reaction to Tomei’s win spoke volumes about the secret distaste Hollywood has for comedy and the insecurity about American actors (not named Meryl Streep) when compared to British actors. Coincidentally, this season of Who Do You Think You Are features Helen Hunt, who also won on Oscar for a comedic role by besting four brilliant British actresses and whose accomplishment was also subsequently trashed.
The season premier featuring Martin Sheen was something of a dip in form for Who Do You Think You Are, but this week the show was back up to full strength. Unlike previous celebrities who went to Italy, Tomei seemed at home there rather than a visitor. I think it was because of the language. I could not figure out Tomei’s level of fluency, but if she did not speak or understand Italian, she faked it very well–possibly with the help of the camera crew.
Tomei’s first stop was Cecina, where her great-grandfather Leopoldo was born. She found his grave (as well as Adelaide’s, who was buried with him) and learned his date of death, but nothing about any murder. Quite the contrary in fact; Leopoldo’s family claimed that he died of illness. A disappointed but relieved Tomei set off to Elba, the island of her great-grandmother’s birth and of Napoleon’s first exile. In Elba, she discovered her great-grandmother’s ancestry, which extended back to Tomei’s eighth great-grandfather. Also in Elba she learned from a newspaper report that the illness story was hokum; her great-grandfather was murdered by gunshot. Leopoldo was killed because of a business relationship that went sour: the man who managed the Bianchi family’s kiln business fired Leopoldo’s brother for disloyalty thereby impugning the family’s honor. Vendetta! In true Italian style, this resulted in the manager killing Leopoldo in cold blood. Because he was wealthy, the murderer bought his own justice (top-quality attorneys and an acquittal), and then disappeared forever. One wonders if he disappeared or “disappeared,” but that was never addressed. Tomei then received a letter from her grandfather’s cousin who filled Tomei in about Adelaide’s life following Leopoldo’s murder. Adelaide remarried a decent man who help raise her sons, and even assisted Tomei’s grandfather’s in escaping to the United States. Tomei then returned home to share the news with her relieved mother than Leopoldo was a decent man and not a scoundrel.
Last week, I compared the NBC show to the BBC original and hypothesized that any quality gap was probably due to the time constraints of commercial television. (Again, Ancestry.com’s in-show plug for itself was completely not subtle.) While this week’s story was arresting, the missing time again took a toll. Continuity was not a problem, but the extra time could have allowed for Tomei to reflect more. For example, why did the Bianchi family claimed that Leopoldo died of illness when that was clearly not the case? Likewise, it seemed odd to me that neither Tomei nor her mother knew about Adelaide’s second husband despite the fact that (1) he raised Tomei’s grandfather; (2) was a good man; and (3) helped Tomei’s grandfather immigrate. Maybe this would have been addressed had there been more time, but this is NBC not PBS, HBO, or the BBC.
One of the great things about Who Do You Think You Are is that it represents a different and more personal way to look at history. Reading a history book or watching a Ken Burns documentary can be great, but that is not all there is. Any number of sources can tell you that the Irish Potato Famine was massive in scope, scale, and toll, but learning about the fate of a family that fled Ireland because of the Famine gives a personal, dare I saw human, context to the tragedy. It brings it closer to your own understanding when you realize it is your family who suffered.
This episode was oddly different though because it was so focused on the personal history that there was never any attempt to fit that story into the larger historical picture. Again, I wonder if this had to do with the missing 15-20 of commercial time. One can argue that perhaps Leopoldo’s story was too personal for a larger context approach, but it was jarring to realize that narrator Mocean Melvin’s only historical explanation was a reminder that Napoleon was exiled to Elba.
What I appreciate most about Who Do You Think You Are is the way we as the audience watch the journey. It’s what for me makes the show superior to “Faces of America,” Henry Louis Gates’s show from PBS. On that show, the guests were handed their personal history by Gates, who did all the traveling himself. On Who Do You Think You Are, the celebrities make the trip and hear the story for themselves firsthand, even if often they are just handed the research.
This is the only real complaint genealogists have about Who Do You Think You Are; it gives a false sense of how difficult genealogy is. Tomei went to Elba and had ten generations or so of her family’s genealogy handed to her. For those of us who do not have the show’s budget or team of researchers, it takes months or even years to trace generation by generation. I’m not complaining exactly (maybe a little professional jealousy), but to the viewer who has not done genealogy before and is thinking of starting after watching the show, you have to know that this kind of information simply doesn’t get handed to you.
As I understand it, once a celebrity gets involved with the show, they hear nothing more for months as a team of professional genealogists, researchers, and historians (including for this week’s episode, an “Italian Duel Expert”) finds as much as can be found. Money is no object, language is no barrier. All that matters is that the story be interesting, and nothing interesting (by television standards) is found, then the celebrity is given the research, and no episode is made. That is something that very hard for me to contemplate. Coming from tailors, junk dealers, and the occasional pulpit-less rabbi, it is very hard to me to imagine that anyone’s story is uninteresting.
I want to conclude this review by saying that this week’s show was extremely personal for me. I have no family from Italy, and I am in no way related to Tomei, but her mother came to a realization tonight, a realization that I think she hesitated with and couldn’t say out loud because the implications: we are all where we are because somewhere along the line some horrible tragedy happened to an ancestor that changed his or her descendants’ destinies. Because Leopoldo was killed, his wife remarried and his sons were raised by a different man, which led to Tomei’s grandfather’s immigration. I too have something like that, which I wrote about before, and I thought about my own great-grandmother’s life while watching Tomei and her mother reflected.
That is though what Who Do You Think You Are does at its best; it makes you realize how much we owe to the inevitable force of history. Even the most seemingly unrelated events, the murder of a solitary man over 100 years ago on another continent, can create an Oscar winner.