Reality Bites: Who Do You Think You Are?

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There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch them all, one at a time.

How come in former lifetimes, everybody is someone famous? I mean, how come nobody ever says they were Joe Schmo? - Crash Davis

It's not entirely analogous, but there are definite similarities between the wishes of the dubiously reincarnated and those tracing their ancestry. Like the former, these family tree climbers would like nothing more than to discover a distant link to royalty, or even villainy (as long as it's of the romantic piratical variety and not, say, Joseph Goebbels). The boom in online genealogy services has made the prospect of unearthing your relationship to the 4th Viscount of Arbuthnott easier than ever.

And even more so if you're famous, like the celebrities featured in TLC's Who Do You Think You Are?, who receive professional assistance in revealing their pasts they could otherwise have easily paid for if they'd shown any interest in the subject beforehand.

Sorry, did I say "famous?" Granted, before the show was canceled by NBC and moved to The "Learning" Channel, we got to delve into the backgrounds of A-listers like Gwyneth Paltrow and Tim McGraw while traveling to exotic locations (Latvia! Bulgaria! Paducah!). Since the show's subsequent acquisition by TLC, however, we must content ourselves with mostly domestic travel and celebs like Chelsea Handler, Chris O'Donnell, and Trisha Yearwood. Are they still more recognizable than either you or me? Of course. Are they on the set director's short list of "cut to's" at the Oscars? Not quite.

Zooey Deschanel, on the other hand, is at least known to anyone sick of the expression "manic pixie dream girl (not at all pejorative for a 33-year-old woman) and to people who recognize her from 500 Days of Summer or New Girl. She tells us at the outset about the tradition of strong women in her family, explaining how she can relate to her activist grandmother, who was once arrested for protesting nuclear weapons. Deschanel describes herself as similarly "getting up in arms about things." Of course, to date the most radical act she appears to have committed is singing a cover version of Nazareth's "Love Hurts" with Sasha Spielberg.

Mom Mary Jo and dad Caleb give her the basics: her great grandparents were Quakers who helped found the city of Philadelphia, and Zooey wants to see if any were also part of the Abolitionist movement. She's off to Pennsylvania, where she makes the disquieting discovery that her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather (I think, may have missed a "great") actually owned a slave. Hey, it was the style at the time. However, her great(4)-grandmother was on a Lancaster, PA committee opposing slavery in 1848. Pretty ballsy, though not as ballsy as voluntarily appearing in M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening, am I right?

Anyway, Deschanel finds out a freed slave who rented a house on her family's farm was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. The farm was also the site of the Christiana Riot, where Maryland slave owners fought with freed slaves and abolitionists in Lancaster County. Blood was shed, arrests were made, and Zooey Deschanel is shocked, shocked that Congress ever did anything as dastardly as passing the (2nd) Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Oh, give her a break. What's more important: reading boring books about the history of your country? Or making sure your web site has been updated for "Bestie Day?"

Deschanel's takeaway is essentially that one of her ancestors indeed played a brave role in the effort to end slavery ... and also allegedly inspired John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Talk about your mixed bag. The closest I can come to that is the (probably apocryphal) story my family is fond of telling about a distant ancestor who was King of the Isle of Man, and so beloved of his subjects they drove him into the sea and drowned him. I come by my people skills honestly.

LIke I said, genealogy is big business. The last time we Americans, notoriously noncommittal about our backgrounds unless we're self-conscious or Irish, gave this much of a shit about our roots was, well, after Roots. Hilariously enough, it was mostly white people doing it then, too. What I don't really get is why - even in what is essentially an hour-long infomercial for Ancestry.com - we care about celebrity family trees. Wouldn't a more entertaining proposition be to randomly select an applicant (the aforementioned Joe Schmo) from among the viewing audience to see where their particular history led? Is it really that remarkable a celebrity -- with the assistance of various genealogical experts and free access to historical archives -- is able to find out something interesting about their past?

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to prepare for my invasion of the Isle of Man.

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