Who Do You Think You Are? Isn't As Lame As It Sounds

Perhaps you are not that interested in Who Do You Think You Are?, the celebrity geneaology show premiering tonight on NBC. After all, the show's promos rely heavily on name recognition—and while names like Sarah Jessica Parker, Emmitt Smith, and Susan Sarandon don't hurt, who wants to watch a show about somebody else's ancestors? The answer is simple: It's fascinating.

Turns out WDYTYA? doesn't have much to do with the celebrities themselves—it's really about their family histories and the process of researching them. Executive producers Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky whittled their list of stars down to seven—Brooke Shields, Spike Lee, and Matthew Broderick in addition to Parker, Smith, Sarandon, and Kudrow herself—based on their genuinely interesting genealogical tales. All told, Who Do You Think You Are? combines the extensive resources and educational value of a History Channel special with the emotional appeal and famous casting of a primetime TV drama. Without all the soft lighting and acting and stuff.

Still not convinced? Even if you don't care about the featured celebrities or retain what you learned about their families, you might at least be inspired to research your own genealogical history. Watching Sarah Jessica Parker (the subject of tonight's premiere) page through record books and track down relatives will help guide you through the process, should you decide to investigate your own family tree.

After screening the premiere episode, my only complaint is the blatant "Americanization" of the show. Yep, WDYTYA? is a British import—but when it aired across the pond, it ran for a full hour instead of getting the 42-minutes-plus-commercials treatment that comes standard with American network programming. Each installment begins with a one-to-two minute introduction that tells you why the featured celebrity is famous (read: why you should care about his/her family's story), and ends with a black-and-white montage set to cheesy music (cue the Rob Thomas solo!) and peppered with throwaway quotes like "This has changed my life forever!" and "I know so much more now!" Oh, and the logo is a total Six Feet Under ripoff.

But in the end, the show is interesting. It's an admirable (and successful, I hope) attempt by NBC to bring something intelligent and educational to their lineup. And it's a risk, especially because most reality shows rely on competition and charisma (Survivor, Project Runway) or exaggerated emotions and health problems (The Biggest Loser, 16 and Pregnant). WDYTYA?'s charisma comes in the form of seven celebrities who're willing to learn about their families on-camera. As the subjects' familial connections to the Salem Witch Trials, slavery in the South, and the horrors of the Holocaust all surface, we see genuine human emotion from people we might not otherwise see as real—and that makes for quality television.

Who Do You Think You Are? premieres tonight at 8pm on NBC.

Follow TV.com writer Stefanie Lee on Twitter: @StefAtTVDotCom

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