Observations on Who Do You Think You Are?—the Marisa Tomei Episode

I’ve been enjoying NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? since the first series. Like a lot of genealogists, I leave each episode with questions the producers don’t answer.

The most recent episode, featuring actress Marisa Tomei, was a case in point. (Click here for NBC’s episode guide.)  As the show unfolded, we followed Marisa through New York and Italy as she tracked down clues and consulted local experts to discover the real story behind her great-grandfather’s murder. The story emerged from cemetery and vital records, newspapers, and court records, but to me the producers left key questions unanswered.

Here’s the biggest one. Marisa’s great-grandfather, his father, his brother, his wife’s family, and his murderer all worked in the lime kiln industry, but WDYTYA didn’t tell us anything about the industry in Italy at the time of the story! Was it growing or shrinking? What economic and historical events affected it? How important was the industry in the economy of the local area? Were Marisa’s ancestors’ families key players, or did they have a small role? Who were their customers? Who were their suppliers? Who were their competitors? What were their relationships with those groups? Did they own land or facilities? How many employees did they have? Were the employees mostly family members, or did they come from the community at large?

While the episode did a nice job of portraying the cultural components of the events leading to the murder–the significance of the gestures and blows in the sequence of interactions between the victim and his murderer, here is my wish list for the rest of the season:

  • Please, NBC, pick up the pace! A less leisurely exposition would allow more material to be shown and discussed, and more of the ancestral stories to be shared.
  • Show us more source materials, and show them better. The camera angles in this episode didn’t let us read either the source materials or the translations.
  • Let the experts talk. I’d love to hear the experts say, “The key resources for this type of question are… and here’s what they say.” (I did enjoy hearing the Italian dialogue, though.)
  • Make it look as though the celebrities are tracking the research. The stars in Season 2 carried notebooks and appeared more engaged with the records. In this episode’s final scene, Marisa didn’t show any of the records she found to her mom!
  • Show us a case that stays in the U.S. longer. As previous seasons demonstrated, there is plenty of scenic and fascinating material in our own country!