Last week I had the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at the family history-related television series Who Do You Think You Are? on the TLC network. My interview with show co-producer Dan Bucatinsky, who also starred in the popular television series Scandal for which he won an Emmy, provided me with some interesting information about the celebrities, the research methodology and how each episode is created, from start to finish.
Is There a Murder Theme to Season Five of WDYTYA?
As for the current season – Season Five – which features Cynthia Nixon, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Rachel McAdams and her sister Kayleen, Kelsey Grammer and Minnie Driver – I wanted to know if there was a unifying “murder” theme. So far, in each episode, a murder figured in with the feature celebrity’s family history. Before you think there is some Scandal influence, Bucatinsky indicated that at least half of this season’s six episodes have “either a murder theme or an alleged murder story. As you know, the show depicts actual history and we’re using real documents. The show is driven by research and we never set out to follow a particular theme.”
The Difficulties of Producing a Show Like WDYTYA
According to Bucatinsky, Who Do You Think You Are? is not an easy television series to produce and compared to other shows it is quite complicated. “It can be a real Rubik’s Cube trying to figure out when we have enough information to sit down with the celebrity and share their story.” Production factors include when to break that story to the celebrity, what document trail is involved and are those documents available, is the celebrity available for filming, etc.
“And of course, since this is a very documentary style show, the biggest unknown is how they are going to react to the information discovered and what are the next steps in the research.” With so many unknowns that can’t always be controlled, Who Do You Think You Are? is probably the show that has the least amount of control than any other. He adds, “As a writer for other television shows, I’m so used to scripts and controlling where the story goes. With Who Do You Think You Are?, being ‘unscripted’ is an understatement.”
Research Lead Time and Logistics for WDYTYA
There is no set “formula” or typical time line for producing an episode from what Bucatinsky shared in our interview. “We’ve had so much variety on that; we’ve had some stories that have gone from start to finish, in say, four weeks, but that has been very rare. Most stories need to research for a minimum of three months and we’ve research some people for years.” In fact, Bucatinsky said that the episode featuring actress Marissa Tomei started research in Season One, continued through Season Two and they were finally able to complete her story for Season Three. “Some people just take longer, and especially when you find a person in a celebrity’s family history that is going to become the protagonist of their story, you really don’t want to leave any stone unturned before we shoot the episode. We’ve had some episodes move much faster this season and it also can depend on the resources. In general, we do tend to research most celebrities for between three and six months.”
Totally Unscripted – Reaction To History is Unrehearsed
I asked Bucatinsky how the research and story results were revealed to each celebrity – whether this was done off camera and then re-enacted or done live for the first time. “None of it is re-enacted. All of it is being seen for the first time and each episode is shot as a documentary. We do map out each episode to some basic extent for planning purposes: our historians and our contributors certainly know that they will be meeting with someone at particular time and a particular place. We then bring that person into that place and we introduce them to that genealogist for the first time.” He adds that “Once in a while, when the crew and celebrity are arriving at an archive, there will be typical introductions, but there is no conversation and all interaction happens on camera for the first time.”
Celebrities and WDYTYA – Who Makes the Grade?
Is it possible for a celebrity to have a family history that is just too boring for Who Do You Think You Are? Here’s an inside look at how celebrities are selected for the show: “When the show first started, we used the UK version as an example of the format. Lisa Kudrow [WDYTYA Co-Producer] and I did a lot of outreach together; we went out to agencies and publicists and called upon our personal contacts in the business and talked about the show and the integrity of the show. But with the show is now in its fifth season, we do have people coming to us. Every celebrity obviously has to go through an approval process especially by TLC. Every network has their own target demographic and the celebrities selected need to fit with that demographic.”
Bucatinsky also said that variety is important when it comes to both celebrities and story lines. “We also do a lot of outreach. We will go after certain people in an attempt to get as much diversity as possible. We’ll try not to do the same kind of story in one season: three Irish stories or three Holocaust stories or three Civil War stories in the same season is not what we’re after necessarily.” He added that since Who Do You Think You Are? has been running several seasons, the producers have more celebrities approaching them than at the beginning. “This is a good thing since we’re always researching more people than we are shooting because you never know when the document trail is going to go dry.
As for having boring ancestors? “We’ve never turned people away for being boring. We have turned people away because there is no story, no narrative to follow. A document trail runs dry or we hit a wall or we can’t confirm a particular lead that we’re on. Like any mystery, you know, digging into someone’s historical ancestry is about following clues; it is what makes the show so fun to shoot because it is like a scavenger hunt. But if suddenly a clue were to run dry, your story would stop. So we do a lot of research at one time and once in a while someone’s story will either hit a dead end or it will just be ten generations of potato farmers and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
As for whether or not the celebrity has to pay for any of the travel or research expenses for an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Bucatinsky stated: “No. The only time any talent has had to open their wallets is when they’ve added days to a visit to a trip or they’ve added people that they wanted to go with them. The research is covered by us and the shoot and every aspect of the trip is covered by us.”
Diversity and WDYTYA Celebrities
A noticeable topic with Season Five of Who Do You Think You Are? has been the lack of people of color and minorities depicted on screen. Bucatinsky is well aware of the criticism and here is what he offered in response: “It’s just a matter of which celebrity’s research is completed enough to bring the episode forward and the logistics of that celebrity being available for filming. It really isn’t about us actually not reaching out to people of diversity. Right now, for example, we are working on stories involving Latin American heritage as well as one celebrity story that will take us to Asia.”
As someone with a multi-cultural heritage himself – Bucatinsky’s parents are from Argentina and his grandparents were from Eastern Europe – he stated, “I’m all about trying to cover the globe as much as possible with the show. But we only have so much control and so this season the talent that was available around the time their stories broke turned out to be these six.”
The Future of Who Do You Think You Are?
We ended the interview by asking if we would see a Dan Bucatinsky episode in a future season of Who Do You Think You Are? “I get asked that a lot. I haven’t done any research on my own family history and Lisa Kudrow is always telling me ‘Don’t do any searching on your own so that you leave us the option.’ It is kind of funny, I wear so many different hats in Hollywood. My producer’s hat is always saying that we can always do a lot better than Dan Bucatinsky so I’m not sure if I’ll ever pass my own approval process.”
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I’m looking forward to the remaining episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? for this current Season Five and I’m hoping that TLC will make an announcement soon about a new season in 2015. As they say . . .stay tuned!
©2014, copyright Thomas MacEntee. All rights reserved.