Roots TV Becomes New Branch of Reality TV

Henry Louis Gates, Lisa Kudrow and even "The Simpsons" are turning genealogy into programming

On the latest episode of "The Simpsons," Lisa digs into the roots of the most American of fictional TV families – ignoring warnings that she's headed down a yellow-hued road to disappointment.
“I won’t give up,” she declares. “I have to know that somewhere in the muck and mire… that this family had a noble spark.”

"The Simpsons," still a pretty decent pop cultural barometer after two decades on the air, tackled genealogy at a time when Reality TV is growing a new branch: call it Roots TV.

Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (perhaps best known for the White House Beer Summit) hosts the fascinating “Faces of America” on PBS, following his great "African American Lives” series.  Meanwhile, Lisa Kudrow (perhaps best known for the decade-long coffee summit called "Friends") is the executive producer of an upcoming NBC show, "Who Do You Think You Are?” set to debut March 5.

Both shows research the backgrounds of well-known folks – Gates traces the genealogy of Meryl Streep and Yo-Yo Ma, among others, while Kudrow's program will feature Spike Lee and Sarah Jessica Parker, to name just two.

Who we are and where we come from are inherently fascinating questions – ones that are especially important as we grapple with immigration reform, political divisions and national identity. Perhaps the most important question these shows try to answer is what does it mean to be American?

A big part of the attraction for viewers, of course, is the celebrities and those irresistibly dramatic moments when we watch them learn of untold family histories. There's a certain touching appeal to seeing Stephen Colbert, who plays a compassion-challenged political commentator on his comedy show, mist up when Gates tells him about his gutsy Irish ancestors.

As Lisa Simpson knows, not every story reflects well on generations past. We're not all descended from royalty (as American-born Queen Noor of Jordan learned from Gates, royal blood flowed through her veins long before she married into royalty).
These kinds of shows are fine as long as they stay rooted in careful research and fact – even if those facts are limited and subject to interpretation. But we'll take pieces of truth wherever we can get them.

"We always forget how important history is. It informs everything that happens after," Kudrow told TIME magazine.

Maybe Gates or Kudrow should start a show that traces the backgrounds of regular folks – like the Simpsons.                   
In Sunday’s episode, Lisa ultimately discovers that the family tree includes an escaped enslaved African who was a pioneer doughnut maker (and shares Homer’s hairline).

The yellow-tinted, dysfunctional crew, it turns out, is 1/64th black.

“So that’s why I’m so cool,” Bart notes.

What’s really cool is the conclusion Gates has drawn from his series, whose final two installments air this Wednesday and next.

"I found," he wrote on the show's blog, "that despite all our apparent differences in terms of culture and history, we are all the same.”

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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