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Television Review

Celebrities root through family history

Sarah Jessica Parker goes over her family tree with Josh Taylor in the first episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?’’ Sarah Jessica Parker goes over her family tree with Josh Taylor in the first episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?’’ (Lisa Poole/NBC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 5, 2010

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When you picture Hollywood stars looking for roots on TV, you probably think about hair coloring and the Bravo channel - something like “Dyeing Young.’’

But on NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?’’ celebs with perfectly hued hair including Sarah Jessica Parker and Brooke Shields will be seeking their own genealogical roots. The new show, which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 7, represents the reality-TV extension of the urge that Alex Haley stoked in the mid-1970s with “Roots’’ and that now flourishes on websites such as ancestry.com, genealogy.com, and myheritage.com. People remain driven to understand who they are in terms of where they came from, to feel a sense of grounded identity in this relentlessly fast-paced, present-tense, and digitized world.

Based on a popular British series with the same title, “Who Do You Think You Are?’’ is the People magazine version of PBS’s “Faces of America With Henry Louis Gates Jr.’’ Each episode is devoted to a single star, as he or she travels from expert to historian to family member for factual ancestral information. Tonight, Parker traces her family tree back and back, traveling from New Jersey, where we meet her mother, to Cincinnati to California to, finally, Boston and Salem. Turns out Parker may be related to someone involved in the Salem witch trials.

True to its reality-TV roots, “Who Do You Think You Are?’’ is presented in heavily dramatized terms. The narration is over-baked and, at times, unintentionally funny, such as when the narrator announces, “Coming up, Sarah Jessica finds out whether her ancestor was accused of being a witch.’’ The soundtrack music and montages are also manipulative and intrusive. And each discovery Parker makes is an opportunity for her to appear stunned, blown away, moved, and touched - to perform just a little bit.

Clearly, NBC and show producer Lisa Kudrow (who’s in episode 3) realize they need to impose a strong sense of story and unfolding mystery onto each hour, to keep viewers engaged and build ratings. Otherwise, the show runs the risk of coming off as too much of a vanity project, even for our celebrity-obsessed culture. As much as I like Parker and Kudrow and the subjects of later episodes such as Susan Sarandon and Spike Lee, I’m not sure I like them enough to care about their long-gone ancestors. It’s primarily when the stars’ family trees overlap with history - the Holocaust, for example, in Kudrow’s case - that the show feels like something more than Hollywood self-indulgence.

It’s interesting to see TV take on the personal-history trend, not just with “Who Do You Think You Are?’’ and the Gates show, but with ABC’s “Find My Family’’ and WEtv’s “The Locator,’’ two series that help people reunite with long-lost relatives and birth parents. Some of the contemporary hunger for the recovery of family and family history is probably the result of TV-and-computer-bred isolation. We spend mind-blowing amounts of time alone at our computers or watching niche TV channels that speak only to our respective generations. Somehow, pulling our families together may offer some compensatory pleasure. Can it be? Is media pushing us back to our roots?

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? On: NBC, Channel 7

Time: Tonight, 8-9