Who Do You Think You Are? (USA)

Nobody does narcissism quite like the Americans.

So, BBC1 has begun showing the US version of the British genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? (broadcast dates and times to be announced). First up, Sarah Jessica Parker. Yes, her: the one with the clothes and the absolute refusal to let a once perfectly decent television show die with dignity. It's funny. With only one exception - the American football running-back Emmitt Smith - the stars of the first series of WDYTYA? (USA) are instantly recognisable: SJP, Lisa Kudrow, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Broderick, Spike Lee. But, imagine the confusion if things were the other way around and NBC unaccountably began screening WDYTYA? (UK). You give us good-looking A-list stars. We give you Bill Oddie, Ainsley Harriott and Kevin Whately. What do you mean you don't know who Kevin Whately is? Don't you guys get Lewis?

Oh, well. We must not let our inferiority complex cloud our judgement of the work in hand. The series is produced by Kudrow, who saw the show on television in Ireland and must have thought, "How have we so far managed to escape this extravaganza of narcissism, phoney drama and pointlessness back home?" (One longs to know which episode she was watching: was it the Catholic singer Dana, or the former Fine Gael politician Ivan Yates?)

In a flash, she imported it, adding just enough all-American flourishes to please the network: cheesy voice-overs, swooping music and lots of sickly sentimental photomontages explaining "the story so far" for the benefit of viewers whose Pop-Tarts end up taking longer to toast than the duration of the ad break.

For students of transatlantic cross-cultural difference, there are other things to notice, too. For instance, in the US, historians and archivists have excellent teeth. Plus, they are mostly rather young and good-looking. When, in Salem, Mass, SJP met a professor from Cornell who was - how to put this? - slightly more eccentric of manner and, er, rotund than those who'd preceded her, our poor heroine, presumably terrified of what failing to bench-press your own body weight 85,000 times a day can do to a person, upped her "Oh, wows!" so dramatically she began to sound like Sally faking an orgasm in When Harry Met Sally.

So what, now, do we know of the Parker family history? Well, on one side there was a guy who travelled by wagon from Cincinnati to California, where he hoped to find gold, only to die almost immediately of a mysterious illness. SJP looked upset on hearing this news. I think she really sympathised with her dead relative; I guess missing the Gold Rush is a 19th-century version of turning up to the Henri Bendel sale a day late. On the other side there was Esther Elwell, who was accused of witchcraft in Salem in 1692 - as keen observers of American history will know, not the best time to have your "spectre" caught "floating" by the corpse of a dead woman. But, whaddaya know? Esther was the last person accused before the dubious court trying such cases was disbanded, and lived to an old age. "Wow!" said Sarah Jessica.

Back in New Jersey with her mum - "Mommie!" - there was much smiling and hugging. SJP's mum has missed her vocation; she is even more unnaturally animated than her daughter. But then, to be fair, they'd been through a lot. Mommie had stayed home in her clapboard house and SJP had taken, ooh, three flights, tip-toed up a couple of snowy paths in her dagger heels, and enjoyed a few incoherent chats with people who'd done all the paper-digging for her in advance. Exhausting! Someone call the spa.

She wasn't even forced to wear those unbecoming white gloves when wielding ancient parchment. Lord, I hope Kudrow intervened on this point before the next show was filmed. Let them twist the format all they like. Some things can never be changed. The law is: no white gloves, no long-lost relatives.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas