During the first season of Who Do You Think You Are?, Sarah Jessica Parker, who once played a wart-nosed witch in the film Hocus Pocus, discovered that her ancestor was accused of witchcraft. This season, Parker’s Sex and the City co-star Kim Cattrall gets her turn to dig into her own family’s sordid, albeit less fluky, past. In the latest episode of NBC’s genealogy documentary series, an adaptation of the British program, Cattrall travels to her birthplace of Liverpool, England, where her grandfather mysteriously disappeared during the Great Depression, leaving her mother, aunts, and grandmother alone and impoverished.
During most episodes of the series, celebrity subjects are seen gathering information and clues with the aide of genealogists and local historians (and, presumably, with the help of the show’s unseen producers as well as the folks at Ancestry.com, with whom NBC is partnered), but Cattrall appears to be doing most of the sleuthing herself, which is interesting, but not surprising given that her quest essentially involves finding a missing relative, not unearthing obscure historical facts about ancestors she never even knew existed. To that point, this particular episode of Who Do You Think You Are? is more like Unsolved Mysteries.
After a commercial-break cliffhanger in which she gasps, “Oh my God. That son of a bitch,” it’s revealed that Cattrall’s grandfather remarried within a year of abandoning his family, hid “within plain sight” just three hours away, and never even bothered to change his name. The actress’s anger for a man she never even met is palpable, as is Rose O’Donnell’s horror at discovering in another episode that her ancestors were forced to live in a concentration camp-style “workhouse” in Ireland before emigrating to Canada, and Vanessa Williams’s pride at finding out that two of her ancestors (one an African-American who fought against the South during the Civil War, and another who held elected office after being freed from slavery) paved the way for her to become the first black Miss America.
When Cattrall decides that trekking all the way to Australia to confront the children of whom she deems to be an unfathomably selfish criminal isn’t necessary to complete her journey, despite the probability that it would make juicy TV, she heads home to share her discoveries with her mother and aunts. In this way, Who Do You Think You Are? succeeds at being both fascinating and profound without resorting to—minor cliffhangers aside—sensationalist gimmicks or manipulative sentimentality. The stories, though personal for each subject, aren’t just a voyeuristic peek at famous people’s lives and ancestries, but a look inside the human heart.