Dan Bucatinsky on Bringing Back ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Now
The show from executive producers Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky’s will this season feature Allison Janney, Zachary Levi, Nick Offerman, Billy Porter, Zachary Quinto, and Bradley Whitford as they go on poignant searches to trace their families trees with the help of genealogists, historians, and experts. The docuseries’ return comes as more and more people are becoming interested in exploring their ancestry and genealogy. Bucatinsky tells us why that is and previews what to expect.
What do you think makes now the right time to bring back this series for viewers and for the celebrity guests?
Dan Bucatinsky: We’ve been doing this show for 10 years now — we can’t quite believe it — but there’s a messaging in this show that I think happens that is sort of under the surface, which is that history matters, that we are all made up of both enormous and also tiny moves that occurred even 100, 200, 300 years ago with our ancestors. And there has been a growing interest in genealogy. Interestingly enough, there was a huge boom back when we first premiered on NBC [in 2010], a huge interest in genealogy and ancestry.com, and it continues to be a huge area of interest and a huge business.
But I think even over the pandemic — there’s something about large, huge scale historical events, like a global pandemic, like a war, like immigration crises, things that are happening in our current lives and in our world that impact us individually. And when you are able to walk in the footsteps of your ancestors and realize the ways in which those things also happened throughout history and they impacted the families and the births and the marriages and the childbearing and the moves, it’s quite remarkable how it gives us a context and it gives us a way of thinking about how we move through our lives in the present day.
Since Lisa and I started doing this show — and it’s such a passion project for us, obviously, we’re now nearing 80 episodes over 10 years — we’ve cared deeply about it. Everyone’s story is so different, but there’s something that emanates from this show that is this understanding suddenly that today is the history of 100 years from now, that everything we’re doing right this minute, every record we leave, every photograph we take, every document that we sign will become, in fact, the records, God willing, of 100 years from now. So we’re making history every single day. And so watching some of our favorite celebrities make sense of and find emotional connections to the characters and the people in their families who lived years before them is something that feels particularly important right now.
Is there anything you’re seeing this time around that surprised you versus from the original run?
We started researching this season in 2018. We started shooting in 2019. Obviously because we had to pause for a global pandemic for a year and a half, we have made these six episodes over a period of four years. So over the 10 years, there has been sort of an evolution of the show and people’s appetite for understanding and a shorthand for people’s understanding and making sense of historical documents.
I have noticed that many of our celebrities now have become fans of the show and so even though they don’t know what their story’s gonna bring, because we don’t tell them in advance, I think there’s an excitement, an anticipation, and an appetite for the very things that they’re about to go do, which I feel like in the first three years of the show were much more surprising and much more scary to our subjects when they didn’t really have a context for it. So I think one of the good things that have come from us being on the air as long as we have and obviously getting a lot of critical support and Emmy nominations and having so many people having been through this experience before with such a positive outcome is that people have a desire to want to go on this journey and that excitement and curiosity leads them to be very engaged subjects.
Whose reactions from this group of celebrities stood out to you when it comes to what they learned? Anyone specifically or just all of them in their own ways?
The great thing about this show is it definitely follows a format and at the same time, because historical documents are all accurate and they’re all specific to actual families and real people, every episode is so completely different from the one before it, and also every celebrity comes to it with a different fear, expectation, curiosity. Billy is an outspoken, really inspiring speaker about social action issues, about his own history, about his desires. So he certainly was not surprising, [but had], I would say, a very inspiring and emotional reaction to his own ancestry. I feel like it was really revelatory to watch every single one of our subjects connect to what they heard in their own specific way. To be honest with you, I loved the way each of them was able to communicate what their expectations and hopes were at the front of their journey.
Zach Levi was very honest and very candid about feeling like mental health issues were something that his family had grappled with, that he had grappled with, and wanting to find any historical evidence of it or historical clues. The show is like a scavenger hunt and a lot of times what you’re looking for are connections to who you are in the present. I loved how open and honest and candid he was about his own struggles and looking for a connection that he would derive strength from.
Lisa has done this show, but you haven’t. How do you think you would handle being one of the guests?
Oh my God, I don’t know. Obviously I know so much. I have been involved with the making of, as I said, close to 80 if not more episodes of the show from the inside out. So on the one hand, I would of course be delighted to do something like this, although as a producer, I’m always like we could do better than me. [Laughs] We could get a bigger name than me to go do it. So I’m always the first one to sort of knock my name off the list.
I certainly have the curiosity for it. I think on some level, the amount of knowledge I know about what it takes to produce an episode, knowing how the donuts are made — is that the expression? — I think there’s something about how much I know about what makes for an engaged reaction. I would certainly hope that if I ever did the show, I would be able to let go of all of the stuff that I know, certain beats to hit or marks to hit or [what] would make good television and just be able to have the authentic experience. Of course she had watched many, many episodes, but Lisa’s was sort of the first one we produced, and there was something about that, figuring it out as we went along, that was a benefit to her. I think it probably would be something I’d have to overcome, which is how in my head I might be about wanting it to be a good episode and trying to produce it in my head while I did it. So maybe that’ll keep me from ever doing it.
Would any of the characters that you’ve played leap at the chance to be on a show like this?
James Novak on Scandal, who was not just a journalist, but talk about somebody who likes to poke the bear and get all the information and isn’t scared of anything. That character would absolutely jump at the chance of finding out what skeletons are in what closets.
Who Do You Think You Are?, Premiere, Sunday, July 10, 7/6c, NBC