Tuesdays at 7.30pm on SBS, and SBS On Demand
The televised enthusiasm for delving into family history is almost as great as the demand for cooking shows. The opportunity to discover one’s roots – and hidden stories from past generations – has made Who Do You Think You Are? a hit in numerous countries since it first aired on the BBC in 2004.
I’ve always found the stories fascinating: the nations our forebears came from, the experiences that shaped them, what life was like in their time and how they responded to personal or national events. There are always more stories to tell, which is why the Australian iteration of WDYTYA is into its 11th season on SBS. We just can’t get enough of it.
But while it’s fun to hear extraordinary tales, discover family trees that go back centuries and understand why Grandad behaved the way he did, or why no one talked about Aunty Maud, I often come away from the show disappointed. And it’s rarely because there’s no excitement in the history that’s revealed.
No, what bothers me is how much value those taking part seem to place on finding someone “like” them, or their parents. So, it’s not so much who they might think they are, as “where did I get this trait from?”. Whether it’s a love story like mine, resilience like mine, a family focus like mine, determination like mine – it makes much more sense to the celebrity involved, apparently, if they find an ancestor who had this trait or experience.
Yes, some skills can be passed down the generations just as surely as the family chin but, we know it’s not really that simple.
In Episode 1 of this series, for example, one of Lisa Wilkinson’s convict great-great-great grandmothers is a drunk who regularly goes AWOL, yet Wilkinson’s takeaway is her ancestor’s capacity to survive and be resilient.
It seems that, to a certain extent, those who take part in WDYTYA see what they wish to in their forebears. Wouldn’t we all love to pick and choose the traits we want! But as flawed people, we have to take the good with the bad.
I always find myself thinking it would be brilliant if someone had an Exodus 20:6 moment, in which they could see how God had blessed and upheld their family across many generations. It’s a promise for God’s people, so I guess that can be our takeaway.
In essence, Who Do You Think You Are? is history for entertainment, and I am always entertained by it. You enter into the journey with each of the people taking part and run the gamut of emotion with them.
Watching such a show may even prompt you to investigate your own family history – hardly surprising given the amount of ads encouraging you to do so! Just don’t get so engrossed by the past of your earthly family that you forget the one we’ve been grafted into.