We hope that you've begun watching PBS' new four episode series Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a genealogical journey through the lives of twelve prominent Americans, and by extension, all of our lives. Gates, the Harvard professor whose previous PBS efforts were the acclaimed two series of African American Lives, sits down with these dozen celebrities -- a diverse group including Meryl Streep, Yo-Yo Ma, Stephen Colbert, Malcolm Gladwell, Mike Nichols -- and weaves the life stories of their ancestors and their varied paths to America.
It was an interesting and no doubt the right decision not devote separate episodes to individual stories, but rather skip around to tell bits of the immigrant experience behind the subjects. Each episode explores a different theme using traditional genealogical resources and finally in the last episode Gates (right) turns to the latest scientific DNA research to further understand humanity's bonds to each other. (Gates, you may remember, was arrested in July 2009 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while breaking into his own home after a trip -- off filming this show, in fact -- resulting in much media attention for the bizarre and unpleasant incident. Only in America, right?) Much as there's an over-emphasis on celebrities in our country today, it also was surely the right decision to use this collection of notables to appeal to viewers. A little star power can hopefully be a useful thing, if it brings people to this thoughtful series.
Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. will appeal to those who've been bitten by the family tree bug, and should appeal to everybody else, too, since there's nothing more intimate or more fascinating than the lives of real people. This is the kind of reality show that we should be watching. Forget the battling savages of Survivor or all the other unpleasant contestants on the shows littering every network these days -- this is the real deal. And of course, nothing could be more germane than the subject of immigration, one of the key issues of this century. It has yet to be truly understood by todays' citizenry and will inevitably change the face of the future America, just as Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. shows how it changed the America that came before.
Check out the website for Faces of American with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., where you can learn all about the series itself and also access resources to help you look back into your own ancestry. Episodes are also available online after their initial airings. Check the PBS website for the airtimes in your local market.
Wouldn't it be great if Americans quit wasting time caring about minor celebrities with nothing but scandal to distinguish them, and tried to understand more about themselves? This series will help the effort.