“Imitation is the sincerest form of television.” So quipped radio legend Fred Allen more than 50 years ago, and his words remain truer than ever.
The new series “Who Do You Think You Are?” (7 p.m., NBC) borrows heavily from the just-concluded PBS series “Faces of America with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.” Only this NBC version dispenses with the professorial host, avoids the informative documentary history aspects of “Faces” and pretty much allows its famous subjects to “star” in every installment. It’s “Dancing with the Stars On Their Way Up the Family Tree.” On the PBS series, Gates used celebrity to make a show about history. On “Who Do You Think You Are?” history plays a supporting role in the greater glorification of celebrity.
In the first installment, Sarah Jessica Parker jokes with her brother (a Broadway actor) about her doubts that any of their ancestors played significant roles in American history. She cracks that the only way they would have been on the Mayflower was to have been among the cleaning ladies. But before the hour is out, she discovers that a relative on her mother’s side participated in the California Gold Rush of 1849. Digging deeper, she learns that her mother’s distant ancestor was among the last women accused in the infamous Salem witch hysteria of 1692.
Parker looks back at the Salem experience as “madness,” a time when folks were prosecuted based solely on supernatural evidence. Funny, that sounds just like the plots to “Medium,” “Ghost Whisperer” and Fox’s recently departed “Past Life.” But I digress.
Parker brings genuine enthusiasm to each new discovery, but at the hour’s end, things get a little weird. As she rushes home to her mother (referred to endearingly as “mommy”), the camera work gets gushier. Every close-up of Parker becomes bathed in a golden glow and a slow-motion musical montage arrives from out of nowhere.
And the peculiarity doesn’t end with the Clairol-commercial production values. At the conclusion of the show, Parker announces that she now feels truly “American.” Huh? As opposed to the rest of us who can’t trace “our people” back to New England in 1635? Would she feel any less “American” if she followed her father’s Eastern European Jewish roots? We don’t know, because neither Parker, nor “Who Do You Think You Are?” opts to go down that route.
• Can’t wait for the Oscars? Eddie Izzard hosts the 25th Film Independent Spirit Awards (10 p.m., IFC).
Tonight’s other highlights
• The kids dream of life in a fairy tale on “The Suite Life on Deck” (7:30 p.m., Disney).
• A mugging alerts Allison to new dangers on “Medium” (8 p.m., CBS).
• Scheduled on “Dateline” (8 p.m., NBC): A woman struggles to liberate her husband from kidnappers.
• A virtual wild goose chase on “Caprica” (8 p.m., Syfy).
• Abuse victims become murder victims on “Numb3rs” (9 p.m., CBS).
• Tim Burton and Andrew Lloyd Webber appear on “Friday Night With Jonathan Ross” (9 p.m., BBC America).
• Spartacus fights through his pain on “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” (9 p.m., Starz).