The new season of the U.S. version of television's popular "Who Do You Think You Are?" series started this evening on NBC. The first episode focused on the family tree of Vanessa Williams, the first woman of African-American descent to be crowned Miss America. She has since become an entertainer, earning Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award nominations.
In the "Who Do You Think You Are?" episode, Williams researched her ancestry back to two great-great-grandfathers. Both were black men. One was born a free man of color in New York, the other was born a slave in Tennessee. Both fought for justice for all men, although in very different ways.
Her New York great-great-grandfather enlisted in the Colored Troops of the Civil War, saw combat, and then spent time after the war as part of an Army force charged with making sure that blacks in Tennessee were given their freedom as dictated by new laws.
The second great-great-grandfather was born in slavery but became an educated man by means not mentioned in the television show. After the Civil War, he was a schoolteacher, then one of the first black legislators elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives. In later years, he served as a justice of the peace.
In the television program, Vanessa Williams learns that education has always been a strong concern of her ancestors, down through her father who was a schoolteacher. She also learned that her ancestors, like herself, fought against established prejudice against black Americans.
I noticed that the format of this new episode had changed quite a bit from last year's shows and I believe most of the changes made for a better viewing experience. First, it appeared as if the celebrity this week was doing her own research although with the help of experts. Last year's programs typically showed each celebrity as an inactive participant, simply being fed information by professionals. Tonight, Vanessa Williams appeared to be doing much of the research herself.
I have no doubt that, in fact, all the research was done by professionals long before Vanessa ever became involved herself and well before the first television camera was turned on. Nonetheless, the manner in which the research was presented made her experience appear to be similar to the normal research that most of us conduct. It appeared as if Vanessa herself was finding much of the information first hand. Most of us can identify with that.
The other obvious change was the lack of repeating and rehashing everything after each commercial break. In last year's episodes, each commercial break was immediately followed by an abbreviated repeat of everything that had transpired prior to commercial break. By late in each episode, we were listening and watching the same facts being repeated a third or fourth time. I found that to be tedious, boring, and it obviously reduced the time available for introducing new facts. I like the new format much better than last year's agendas. I suspect the show's producers listened to suggestions made by last year's viewers to improve the episodes this year.
All in all, I liked tonight's episode better than any of last year's shows. It featured a charming lady with an interesting family tree. Tonight's episode also shows a personal view of American history from the Civil War through the early twentieth century.
"Who Do You Think You Are?" will be broadcast every Friday evening for the next few weeks at 8 PM Eastern time, 7 PM Central. Check your local listings for the exact time it will be broadcast in your area.
NBC advertised that tonight's full episode would be available on www.nbc.com. I checked when writing this article a few minutes after the television broadcast ended. I don't see the episode there just yet but assume that it will become available within a few hours. Keep an eye on http://www.nbc.com/who-do-you-think-you-are/