ABC Family’s Switched at Birth Exceeds My (Meager) Expectations
By REBECCA, July 9, 2012
Again and again the Netflix robots would suggest that I watch an ABC Family show called Switched at Birth; again and again I would ignore them. I mean, sure I totally gave five stars to Make It Or Break It (and wrote a glowing review of it here) but that didn’t mean I wanted to watch some schlocky soap opera knockoff! Right?
Well, actually, it kind of did mean that.
The premise is this: Bay Kennish has grown up in a wealthy and privileged white family with an older brother and a private school education. Daphne Vasquez has grown up with her Latina mother and grandmother in a working class neighborhood; she went deaf at a young age and attends a deaf school. The two families discover that Bay and Daphne were (everybody!) switched at birth, and thus begins the difficult negotiations of everyone involved.
I began Switched at Birth with the lowest of expectations—it was a total I’ll-watch-20-minutes-of-this-while-I-eat-breakfast endeavor. But . . . um . . . I was a little bit hooked. I mean, obviously, it’s no Make It Or Break It or Pretty Little Liars, but, well, ABC Family is rocking my world these days, folks. So, here you go. Here are 10 reasons why Switched at Birth might well prove worth your while. (Switched at Birth is available on Netflix and Hulu now.)
1. Worlds Collide! I am a big fan of the worlds collide phenomenon. This can take many forms but nearly always produces delightful drama. You’ve got your called-upon-to-do-something variety, like in Downton Abbey or The Princess Diaries, when someone is put in the position of being obliged to something they never expected. You’ve got your random-people-trapped-together variety, like in The Breakfast Club, 12 Angry Men, or The Parent Trap! Switched at Birth is of the meet-the-parents variety, like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, The Family Stone, or Father of the Bride. Obviously many of the following categories fall under this one, but let’s just say that an ex-pro baseballer and an ex-alcoholic hairdresser don’t actually have much that they agree on.
2. Deaf Cultures. As you might imagine, there are things that are wrong with the show’s portrayals of deaf communities and some of the actors’ sign language (or so I’ve read), etc. Still, it is one of the only tv shows in history to ever feature not just a deaf character but multiple deaf actors (and this is what finally convinced me to start watching it). Daphne’s character (played by Katie Leclerc, who is hard of hearing and has Ménière’s disease) both signs and speaks, and her best friend Emmett and his mother, Melody, who are deaf and only sign, are played by Sean Berdy and Marlee Matlin, both of whom are deaf. For me, the spectrum of experiences that these characters can portray was the most interesting part of the show. There is plenty to say about this—check out Jace Lacob’s article about deafness on the show here.
3. Class. The Kennishes are rich (dad was a pro baseball player and now owns a chain of carwashes—living the dream, yo) and the Vasquezes struggle to get by. So, class is a constant issue for Switched at Birth, whether it’s giving a gift or talking about college. Bay and her brother are privileged in every way and it’s really nice to see a show that points up the kind of assumptions that come with such an upbringing and the way they’re challenged when Bay is suddenly around people who did not grow up wealthy. For example, Bay can’t understand why a guy she starts dating wouldn’t want her to give him a wad of cash to fix his truck, and the Kennish parents seriously stick their feet in their mouths talking to Regina (Daphne’s mom) about why she “chooses” to do things certain ways. The most dramatic expression of this occurs when the Kennishes wonder whether it might have been Regina’s negligence (she used to be an alcoholic) and/or her economic situation that caused Daphne’s childhood meningitis to render her deaf. A very satisfying representation of what might actually happen if you had two families from very different class contexts trying to raise their kids.
4. Bay! Bay Kennish is played by Vanessa Marano—you may know her as Luke’s surprise daughter on Gilmore Girls. She has both moments of extreme spoilt obnoxiousness and delightful sensitivity and I like me a well-rounded character. She’s always felt like the odd one out in her family—she’s an artsy brunette in a sea full of blondes who wouldn’t know a Redon from a Rodin from a writing desk. She does Banksy-esque graffiti around town and dresses really cute and has luxurious hair and a vulnerable-seeming lisp and she learns sign language and I just like her even though she’s a drama queen.
5. Daphne! It’s rare when a show has two main characters that are (sometimes) in opposite camps and I like them both. Daphne is super sweet and cheery, but she’s also very no-nonsense and honest. If Bay is a drama queen, Daphne’s a stage manager: she tries to understand everyone’s point of view and be respectful of them, but in the end she’s gonna do what she’s gonna do. What I like most about Daphne’s story arc I won’t tell you because I don’t want to spoil anything. Let me just say that sometimes even sweethearts get pushed too far, mkay? Also, for like 85% of the time she’s onscreen I was looking at Katie Leclerc and thinking, “how is it that you are not related to Evangeline Lily?” Right?!
6. Emmett! Emmett is described on the show as a “deaf James Dean”—he rides a motorcycle and wears a leather jacket, but he’s been besties with Daphne since they were little kids. He is a sweet guy, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly and when hearing people act like idiots about his deafness he totally messes with them. He plays the drums and becomes (kind of) friends with Bay’s brother when they drag him in to sub for their drummer at the last minute. Badass. Major drama between Emmett and his mom (Marlee Matlin), Emmett and Daphne, and Emmett and Bay. He’s definitely one of my favorites.
7. Ethnicity. When Bay finds out that she’s not white but Latina, she becomes fascinated by trying to figure out what that means for her and her art. She is also troubled by what she suddenly realizes are some very real prejudices that she hears her parents and grandmother voice. Having never thought much about race or ethnicity (she attends private school where class completely eclipses either), Bay is finally in a position to think about how they affect her personally. Since Bay is an artist, she also looks to long-time idol Frida Kahlo for some guidance. For Daphne, her ethnicity has always been deeply connected with where she grew up. When she moves out of her old neighborhood and some of her old friends learn about the switch, they think she’s not the same person anymore.
8. Identity. The question “what if” hangs heavy over Switched at Birth, and is asked in many contexts. Daphne wonders if perhaps she would never have been deaf if she’d been raised by the Kennishes; Bay wonders what her art would have been like if she’d had a different life, etc. At times these musings are a bit trite, but the moments where the question isn’t spoken but rather stumbled upon are the strongest. Especially between Bay and Daphne there are some great moments that involve guilt, jealousy, desire, curiosity. Basically, this show takes the classic teenage search for identity and turns the volume up on it.
9. Creator Lizzy Weiss. I should have known that Switched at Birth would be kind of good the second I IMDBed it and saw that creator, writer, and producer Lizzy Weiss is the genius behind the screenplay/story of Blue Crush, one of my fave oceanic movies of all time. Kate Bosworth is so badass in that movie! Oooh, ooh, omigosh, not to mention that Michelle Rodriguez is in Blue Crush (before she got her adorable teeth fixed)—Michelle Rodriguez who was later on Lost with Evangeline Lilly. Coincidence? Who knows; I don’t think the creators of Lost quite figured that detail out. Also, Lizzy Weiss wrote an episode of that MTV show Undressed—remember? The one where that dude couldn’t have sex with his girlfriends without his sock puppet talking about it? Yeah.
10. ABC Family-ness. This is, above all, a really easy, visually-appealing, highly-consumable show of the variety in which ABC Family specializes. I don’t know how exactly the network went from being an arm of the evil Pat Robertson empire and then a wimpy Disney mouthpiece to having awesome original programming like Pretty Little Liars, Make It Or Break It, Kyle XY, Bunheads, and Switched at Birth, but all I can say is: this one-time hater is a total convert. Indeed, I will go so far as to say that maybe if ABC Family had answered my prayers to make L.J. Smith’s The Secret Circle series into a tv show then it wouldn’t have totally sucked and broken my heart.
So, what do you say? For those of you who’ve seen Switched at Birth, have I just publicly humiliated myself? For those who haven’t, are you intrigued? I can take it!