'Who Do' Returns, and Brings Another Season of Shocking Revelations With It

By Neil Genzlinger -- APRIL 1, 2016

All sorts of people are swabbing inside their cheeks and spitting into collection tubes these days in the interest of researching their ancestry. Yet an old-fashioned paper chase remains far more telegenic, as TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” demonstrates once again when it returns for a new season on Sunday.

But are old newspaper clippings and census records the only options for family-tree television? Not at BYUtv, which recently unveiled an improbable-sounding genealogical competition show. Yes, you read that right.

“Who Do You Think You Are?” has been around since 2010. It started out on NBC, then moved to its current address, where it may well be the classiest show in TLC’s trash-heavy lineup. In each episode a celebrity or other well-known figure researches his or her roots with the help of experts. (Ancestry, the genealogy-tracing company, is a sponsor of the show.) The results are often moving, and that’s certainly the case with Sunday’s episode, in which the actress Aisha Tyler (“Archer,” “The Talk”) is introduced to a great-great-grandfather and some hard truths about her family’s story.

This episode, like many, finds its way back to the era of slavery (Ms. Tyler is black), where the genealogical record often becomes iffy for African-Americans. In the just-concluded season of a similar show, PBS’s “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.,” Dr. Gates was as surprised as his guest, LL Cool J, to find a branch in that rapper’s family showing free-black lineage going back to before 1800.

“The whole of the 19th century before the Civil War,” Dr. Gates told him, “this side of your family never picked one boll of cotton.”

Although DNA test results are sometimes brought to bear, it’s the documents — old newspaper clippings, ledgers, birth records, photographs — that make “Finding Your Roots” and “Who Do You Think You Are?” compelling. But how can television capitalize on the scientific side of the genealogy craze now that it is so easy and cheap to get a DNA profile?

In late February BYUtv, which has ties to the Mormon Church and its extensive genealogical records, took a stab at that question, introducing a preposterous-sounding show called “Relative Race.” Picture a version of “The Amazing Race” in which contestants — in this case, four couples — are on a cross-country scavenger hunt that leads them to DNA-matched relatives they have never met. The sixth episode is coming up Sunday.

One of the gimmicks is that the couples can’t use electronic aids to guide them to their destinations, and the series, if nothing else, proves that no one knows how to read a paper map anymore. The show’s bickering-while-driving component is just plain annoying, but when the contestants finally meet those fourth or sixth cousins, it’s kind of sweet.

Another new reality show, TLC’s “Long Lost Family,” works a variation on the genealogical search, seeking to reunite biologically connected people. One woman searches for the son she gave up for adoption decades ago; another who was adopted at birth seeks her biological mother; and so on.

The show’s hosts, Chris Jacobs and Lisa Joyner, were both adopted themselves, which gives the proceedings an added layer of depth. But the real pull comes from ordinary people’s stories of difficult decisions, ambivalent separations, long decades lived with unanswered questions and a lingering sense of loss. It’s TLC, so the show (which immediately follows “Who Do You Think You Are?” on Sundays) is tricked out with stagy emotional scenes. Yet amid all the tear-shedding, there is some sociology worth contemplating.

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