When the Season 3 of “Finding Your Roots” premieres Jan. 5, much about the show will be different — though viewers are unlikely to notice. The PBS series, which explores the genealogy of celebrity guests, will boast an updated editorial process and a new producing station, Washington, D.C.’s WETA, which takes over from New York’s WNET.
Those changes follow a PBS investigation into the show’s decision not to include information about Ben Affleck‘s slave-owning ancestors in a Season 2 episode featuring the actor. Leaked emails between executive producer and host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton revealed that Affleck had requested that those details be excluded. “Based on the internal review that we had done on that one particular episode, we decided to put some safeguards in place,” Beth Hoppe, chief programming executive for PBS, told TheWrap in October when the show was renewed.
Gates, a professor at Harvard University, spoke with TheWrap this week about those safeguards, the impact of the scandal on the series, and the police violence against African Americans that captured the nation’s attention in 2015.
TheWrap: What was the most surprising discovery that you made this season? Gates:Ty Burrell [star of “Modern Family”] had heard a family story that his maternal great-grandmother was black, a woman named Susanna Weeks. So we researched it, and it turned out it’s true. Ty’s great grandfather’s name is George Weeks, and in the 1930 census George Weeks was listed as white. In the 1920 census, he was listed as mulatto. And in the 1900 census, he’s listed as black. So in a 30-year period, he crossed over. But what’s interesting is that George Weeks’ mother, Susanna Weeks, was a black woman. She was a freed person of color living with her mother in Tennessee. We don’t know how she was emancipated, but she was.
How do you cast the show?
Essentially we sit around and fantasize about people. If you show up in my study in my house in Harvard [Massachusetts], it has a big cork board where we just put the names of people. We have over 70 people in reserve who have agreed to be in the series. Then it’s a matter of scheduling. The producers come up with names, I come up with names. Then we reach out to people and try to schedule them. Then we do the research, then we film them, then we match two or three together around similar stories.
Why do you think viewers are so interested in watching strangers learn about their family history?
What’s your favorite subject? Your favorite subject is yourself. And ancestry is another way of getting to know yourself. You’re not limited to the experiences of your ancestors, but you’re certainly shaped by your ancestors.
The show made some unwanted headlines last year over the Ben Affleck episode. Do feel like the controversy that grew out of that was merited? We all learn from our mistakes. I’m a professor, and I teach my students that everybody is going to make mistakes. My mistake was not explaining to the officials at PBS what was behind my decisions. But what we did was we used that experience to create an even better series. This is the best season that we’ve ever done. The research is rigorous. It’s exciting. More and more people reached out to me and asked to be in the series. So the effect was counterintuitive. So I think that experience and what we learned from that experience has made “Finding Your Roots” even better.
What editorial changes have been made?
So, taking a page from the New Yorker, we increased our level of fact checking. I every once in a while write for the New Yorker, and it has the most rigorous level of fact checking I’ve ever seen. So we added another layer. It strengthens our conclusions and gives us a more rigorous product than I think we ever had.
You were wrongfully arrested six years ago outside your house by a white cop. Given recent headlines, particularly with the Tamir Rice incident, how serious a problem do you feel racial profiling by police is in this country?
I wouldn’t dare compare what happened to me with the terrible, terrible things that we’ve been seeing, the murders of innocent people, overreactions by the police in what clearly seem to be racially-motivated situations. I think that sensitivity training for the police, having video cameras in police cars will be helpful. But it’s terrible. So many black men in prison, it’s a scandal. I’m hoping we have prison reform and I’m hoping that these tragedies will lead to greater sensitivity training and reform in the relationship between the police and the black community.
Has that relationship gotten worse, or has the media made it easier to see?
I think it’s easier to see. The fact that we all have have digital cameras and can be filmed is spreading the knowledge of abuses that are decades and decades old. There’s a long history of problematic relationships between black people and the police. The Black Panthers were formed in part to monitor police behavior in the inner city in Oakland. And that was in 1966. There’s a long history of problematic relationships between the black community, the police, and the court system. I really praise the Black Lives Matter movement for making us all sensitive to a major problem and also calling for accountability.
55 First Looks at New and Returning 2016 TV Shows (Exclusive Photos)
"Galavant" (ABC): ABC's quirky musical comedy is back for even more absurdity, with a meta first episode titled "A New Season aka Suck It Cancellation Bear."
“The Bachelor” (ABC): The 20th season of the popular dating reality show sees Ben Higgins, who was rejected by the latest “Bachelorette” Kaitlyn, as the newest single catch fending off and deciding between twenty-one new contestants.
"Teen Wolf" (MTV): Scott and Stiles will have to put aside their differences when MTV's hit series returns for the second half of Season 5. Stiles' dad, the Sheriff, is still in grave danger, and there's tons of new mysteries to solve. BFF drama can wait.
"The Shannara Chronicles" (MTV): The home of "Teen Wolf" dives deep into high fantasy with this adaptation of Terry Brooks' bestselling series of YA novels. Young heroes are tested as the dying Ellcrys tree inflects deadly demons upon the earth.
"Mike and Molly" (CBS): Melissa McCarthy returns for one final season of CBS' hit sitcom. The shortened 13-episode final season was announced by co-star Rondi Reeds, prompting McCarthy to share via Twitter that she too was "shocked and heartbroken" upon learning of the cancellation.
“Shades of Blue” (NBC): Jennifer Lopez makes a rare return to scripted television in this event series, also starring Ray Liotta, about a group of tough Brooklyn cops who are not afraid to sometimes step outside the confines of the law in order to protect their city.
“Angel From Hell” (CBS): The network's newest sitcom follows Jane Lynch as Amy, a colorful, brassy woman who insinuates herself into Allison's (Maggie Lawson) organized and seemingly perfect life, claiming to be her "guardian angel."
"Shameless" (Showtime): Frank discovers religion on Season 6 of Showtime's popular dark family dramedy following the Gallaghers. The new season finds the scrappy family struggling with change and the possibility of growing apart.
"Shadowhunters" (ABC Family): Cassandra Clare's bestselling YA novels get a makeover adaptation in this series about Clary Fray, who discovers she's destined to be a protector of the human race from demons that lurk around every corner.
"Second Chance" (Fox): Formerly known as "The Frankenstein Code," then "Lookinglass," Fox's newest science fiction drama is about a morally corrupt cop who's brought back to life decades later in a newer, younger, stronger body - and the consequences of that.
"DC's Legends of Tomorrow" (The CW): Heroes and villains of "Arrow" and "The Flash" team up to travel through time and take down an immortal villain, Vandal Savage, who just may conquer the planet should they fail in their mission.
"The 100" (The CW): The third season of the post-apocalyptic drama picks up three months after the catastrophic events of the Season 2 finale. Clarke is on the run and in danger, and Bellamy is trying to hold things together back at Camp Jaha. And a certain AI is still out there somewhere with a warhead that could destroy what's left of humanity.
“Baskets” (FX): Zach Galifianakis stars in this new comedy as Chip Baskets, who sets out to conquer his dream of becoming a professional clown. Flunking out of a prestigious Paris clown school, Chip finds himself working at a local rodeo in Bakersfield, CA instead.
"The X-Files" (Fox): Mulder and Scully are back to give it one last shot at solving the mystery of aliens and government cover-ups. But they'll have time for a side case or two, as most episodes of the revival event series will feature standalone stories.
"Lucifer" (Fox): The latest DC comic book adaptation sees the devil himself doing some good. Lucifer, bored with hell, moves to Los Angeles (where else) and teams up with an LAPD detective to solve crimes. "Gotham" crossover anyone?
"The Fosters" (ABC Family): The third season of the acclaimed blended family series sees everyone settling into a new dynamic now that Callie is permanently adopted, while medical problems, secrets and relationship drama threaten everyone's happiness.
“Suits” (USA): The second half of Season 5 returns to see the repurcussions of Mike behind bars, five seasons of lies and deception finally caught up to him. But don’t expect the mystery of who turned him in to be solved right away. The Patrick J. Adams-led drama has already been renewed for a sixth season.
“The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (FX): Ryan Murphy takes his anthology series prowess to dramatically retell the Trial of the Century, following the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and subsequent trial of former NFL star O.J. Simpson. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Simpson, with Sarah Paulson, John Travolta, David Schwimmer and more starring.
"11/22/63" (Hulu): A schoolteacher, Jake Epping, discovers he can travel back in time - and decides to try to stop the JFK assassination. The 10-hour adaptation of Stephen King novel stars James Franco.
(Premieres at midnight on President's Day, Feb. 15)
"Vikings" (History): The cable network bolstered its hit action series, adding four episodes to the fourth season of the Travis Fimmel-led show. The first 10 episodes air in February, with another 10 set for later in 2016.
“Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders” (CBS): The latest “Criminal Minds” series follows the International Repsonse Unit, the FBI division which is tasked with solving crimes and coming to the rescue of Americans who find themselves in danger while abroad.
“Of Kings and Prophets” (ABC): The Ray Winstone drama is described as an epic biblical saga of faith, ambition and betrayal as told through the eyes of the battle-weary King Saul, the resentful prophet Samuel and the resourceful young shepherd David — all on a collision course with destiny that will change the world.
"Underground" (WGN America): The 10-part miniseries is described as a pulse-pounding journey with revolutionaries of the Underground Railroad and tells the unflinching story of a group of courageous men and women who band together for the fight of their lives – for their families, their future and their freedom.
(Premieres Wednesday, Mar. 9)
"The Catch" (ABC): ABC’s latest Shondaland drama stars Mireille Enos as a fraud expert who finds herself being conned, by her own fiance, who’s been working with his real lover in stealing all her money. This one underwent a bit of a makeover with the recasting of two of its leads. Peter Krause and Sonya Walger replaced Damon Dayoub and Bethany Joy Lenz, respectively.
"Hap and Leonard" (Sundance TV): Based on the series of stories by Joe Lansdale, this anthology series follows the adventures of best friends Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. The two are chronically single, perpetually broke and guided by an old fashioned sense of honor and morality – but the similarities end there.
(Premieres in March on Sundance TV)
"Jackie Robinson" (PBS): The two-part Ken Burns documentary explores the life of the Brooklyn Dodgers legend who broke baseball's color barrier.
"Hunters" (Syfy): Based on Whitley Strieber’s best-selling novel "Alien Hunter," Syfy's latest comes from "Walking Dead's" Gale Ann Hurd and follows an FBI agent on the trail of a shadowy terrorist organization, who may or may not be from this world.
"12 Monkeys" (Syfy): Cole and Cassie do more time traveling and end up in the 1940s for at least some amount of time in Season 2 of Syfy's adaptation of the film of the same name - though the series is decidedly its own thing at this point.
"Containment" (The CW): "The Vampire Diaries" and "The Originals" showrunner Julie Plec adds another project to her plate with this drama set in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic viral outbreak.