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Pop CultureNovember 8, 2017

Overachiever Jacinda Ardern becomes DNA Detective as well as prime minister


Before she became prime minister, Jacinda Ardern went on a valiant journey to trace her ancestry on TVNZ’s DNA Detectives

How’s this for a sign of Jacinda Ardern’s rapid rise: in the year or so between filming her episode of DNA Detectives and it screening on TV last night, she has become deputy leader of the Labour Party, then leader, and now the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Host Richard O’Brien’s introduction of her as a “political bright spark” suddenly seems like a bit of an understatement.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show creator is still the best thing about TVNZ 1’s genealogical travel show, now starting its second series sending notable New Zealanders around the globe in search of their distant relatives. His arch, ever-so-slightly off the wall presentation adds a much-needed element of fun to a show which at times feels like a fancy hour-long advertorial for DNA kits. At least it has the manners to wait until the end to subtly hint where you might go to purchase one of your own.

“Jacinda better pack a sunhat,” O’Brien intones gravely before sending the PM off on her first mission. “Her father’s ancestors rather liked the coast around the Mediterranean. Well, who doesn’t?” In Athens, Ardern (sans sunhat) meets her third cousin Lana (“I thought all my cousins lived in Hamilton and the Hawkes Bay”). There is a moment of immediate familiar recognition as the New Zealander gasps “My god, you have my teeth!”

The actual detective work that goes into tracing these deep family links from a vial of spit must be fascinating but is left – perhaps intentionally – vague. For all the research (and air points) that have gone into the show’s production, it rarely pays a satisfying dividend. Connecting distant relatives who never knew each other existed seems like a kick for those involved, but their polite, awkward meet-ups don’t have any of the emotional pull of a show like Three’s Lost and Found.

This is a different game, to be fair, and some poignant moments still arise. Still in Athens, Ardern visits the grave of her great uncle, an engineer killed there during the war. She reflects: “I could well have been the very first relative who’s ever visited that grave.” The episode’s second guest, performer Stan Walker, is packed off to California to meet a relative called June, a Māori woman who married an American sailor after World War Two and has lived in the US ever since.

“I’m proud to see other Māori who haven’t been brought up Māori proud of their heritage,” he says after meeting her and her family. “If you’ve got Māori in you, eventually it’s gon’ get you.” Walker is a bit more of an open book than the prime minister, understandably, which makes him the more engaging half of the episode. From Chino Hills, O’Brien appears on a smartphone to send him to Las Vegas to meet his second cousin Klaus. Like Jacinda and her cousin in Greece, the pair buzz out for a bit over their similar features – then go go-karting.

Ardern, meanwhile, is in Syracuse, New York State, where a cousin from her mother’s side is waiting in a cemetery with a map of graves and an encyclopaedic knowledge of their shared family tree. “Ah, Margaret, so my great-great-great aunty!” she says as if that is something humanly possible to conceptualise. “Fantastic.”

Walker doesn’t pretend to understand exactly how he’s related to everyone he meets, it’s just cool to get to meet them at all. He winds up in Rapa Nui – aka Easter Island – cliff fishing and mucking around on horses with his third cousin (Klaus’ nephew) Nico. While it’s all a bit vague and contextless, it does make the world seem like a smaller place.

The prime minister – who, for the record, is 54% British & Irish, 29% Northwestern European, 10% French German, 3.7% Scandinavian and 1% Eastern European – summarises her DNA Detectives experience eloquently, saying that “behind the ancestry sits all these amazing stories about these powerful, courageous individuals who I feel really proud to be connected to.” Walker’s closing address is probably closer to the show’s reality: “More whānau… chur!”

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