I’m getting that familiar urge to climb aboard my TV soapbox and preach what I think everybody should be watching. My latest television crusade is the (American) ABC Family show, ‘Switched at Birth’ which has been airing since June 2011 in a seriously long (and still going) first season, that’s concluding in November after a huge 32 episodes.
Now, I’m going to summarise the basic premise of the show (sparknote version: the title pretty much tells you all you need to know) but I feel the need to warn you that while the basic plot sounds a lot like an over-the-top soap opera, it’s totally not. Just, trust me, and go with it.
Bay Kennish has always been the black sheep of her wealthy Kansas family, literally. Her dark hair colouring has always been attributed to a long-ago Spanish ancestor, but her penchant for explosive art experimentation isn’t so easily explained away.
And then a school biology project has Bay questioning her entire life. After taking blood samples from both her parents, Bay makes the unsettling discovery that she shares no DNA with the people who have raised her. But the truth is just as much a shock to Kathryn (Lea Thompson) and John (D. W. Moffett) as it is to Bay, and her brother Toby (Lucas Grabeel) who certainly is his parents’ son. The family seek further genetic testing and realize that the first tests were not a fluke: Bay is indeed not their daughter.
An investigation is launched that leads them back to the hospital where Bay was born, where it’s discovered she was ‘Switched at Birth’ with one Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc).
Daphne grew up in a rough neighbourhood in Riverside, Missouri. She is raised by her single-mother, Regina (Constance Marie) and Puerto Rican grandmother (Ivonne Coll) – Daphne is also deaf.
When the Kennish’s seek Daphne and Regina out, the girls are reunited with their biological mothers for the first time – but that’s really only the beginning of the story.
I love ‘Switched at Birth’. Like I said, the basic premise sounds rather outlandish – but this show is wonderful because it has real heart. And if you think the switched at birth plot is complex, wait till the series unfolds and even more tangled webs are woven.
The show deals with parent’s guilt, Kathryn, Regina and John come to terms with the fact that they didn’t recognize that their baby daughters were not their own. They also deal with the guilt of finding connections with their biological daughters, that they don’t necessarily have with the girls they raised. For instance, Regina was a great painter in her youth, and Bay certainly inherited that artistic streak, while John is a retired baseball star who is thrilled to find that Daphne is sport-obsessed and a stellar basketball player for her deaf team. Of course, the show also explores how Daphne and Bay feel about making connections with their biological parents – while finding that the gap with their ‘switched’ parents grows with every newfound link. One wonderful episode involved the Kennish matriarch coming to meet Daphne for the first time, and deciding to all but sever connections with Bay (not least of all due to her newfound Puerto Rican roots).
The show really becomes about how these two families fit together in the wake of their discovery. Because, certainly, the Kennish’s still think of Bay as their own, and likewise the Vasquez women feel the same way about Daphne. But the parents don’t want to step on each other’s toes in the raising of either their daughter, while still desperate to get to know the biological daughter they were denied.
Some may say that Bay got the shorter end of the stick with finding her biological family – because she also discovered that her biological father, Angelo (Gilles Marini) left Regina and Daphne shortly after Daphne lost her hearing. Angelo had doubts early on, about Daphne’s paternity; but that he left shortly after she lost her hearing has always made Daphne assume that he couldn’t handle having a ‘disabled’ child. So while Bay is desperate to find and meet her biological father, establishing a connection with him dregs up old hurts for Daphne.
The show throws spanners in the works in subtle but fascinating ways. For instance, in the socioeconomic discrepancies between the Kennish wealth and the Vasquez’s ‘wrong side of the tracks’. When it’s discovered that Regina is also a recovering alcoholic, Kathryn and John think that makes them somehow more entitled to raising Daphne.
But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the show is its exploration into deaf culture.
Daphne was not born deaf; she lost her hearing after a terrible bout of meningitis. This, in itself, is a problem for the Kennish’s who want to link Regina’s single-motherhood and low-earning income to Daphne perhaps not receiving proper medical care in her youth? But the fact that Daphne is deaf also presents another barrier for her hearing biological family – who do not know American Sign Language (ASL).
The deaf focus of the show is perhaps my favourite thing about it. I’ve actually picked up on a bit of ASL from watching (the basics like ‘thank you’ and ‘don’t understand’ – but also some words that translate beautifully with hands, like ‘marriage’). But, really, the entire deaf focus is so interesting and handled so beautifully, and the hearing actors do a marvellous job with what I’m sure is a very unusual script.
There were a few episodes in which Daphne agrees to take cooking classes at Bay’s fancy private school, but she has to have an ASL interpreter with her. This proves an embarrassing inconvenience when none of the hearing students or teachers know how to speak to her through the middle-aged man tagging along, and even though Daphne can read people’s lips they just act like she isn’t there and address her interpreter instead. It’s these little things that were wonderful to experience through Daphne’s eyes – her rage and frustration, and being made to feel like a ‘freak’. And it’s no wonder she ultimately chooses to go back to Carlton.
A big storyline (that I had to spoil – but need to talk about as another interesting aspect of the show) is the evolving romantic relationship between Emmett and Bay.
When we first meet him, Emmett is very much of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality with regards to deaf people and the hearing community. Emmett comes from a deaf family, but bullying when he was younger definitely left its scars, and whereas Daphne is comfortable speaking, Emmett is embarrassed by his altered speech and refuses to talk. That’s something I’ve never really thought about – how revealing it must be for a deaf person to share their voice and I loved how ‘Switched at Birth’ handled and explained this. Now big SPOILER alert – if you want to definitely, 100% be convinced to watch this show then you must click here and watch this YouTube clip. It’s my favourite scene from the show so far, and so darn romantic! And watching this, you’ll easily see why everyone who watches the show has developed a massive crush on Sean Berdy.
Maybe it’s a little thing, but I think ABC Family portray scenes between the deaf actors wonderfully. These scenes often won’t have soundtrack music playing; they’ll just be about the two actors – no ‘hearing’ distractions, real emphasis on what they’re saying. And, really, it’s amazing to watch how emotional a language ASL is – and how beautifully and accurately they speak with their hands. And I’ve already been inspired to read one book with a deaf protagonist (‘Five Flavors of Dumb’ by Antony John) because ‘Switched at Birth’ had me seeking out more stories centred around this fascinating community.
As much as child/parent relationships are a focus of this show (as well as some Nature vs. Nurture thrown in) I think what it keeps snapping back to is Bay and Daphne. They have this very odd relationship where they’re almost like sisters, but they’re not actually related. In another life, their paths would never have crossed but through a twist of fate they will be irrevocably linked. I feel like plenty of episodes have explored the girls’ burgeoning relationships with their biological parents and how they sometimes fracture the history they have with the parents who raised them . . . but in more recent episodes the girls have shared some nice moments, and I look forward to them figuring out where they stand in each other’s lives too.
The show has a weird first season, because it started with only ten episodes but after it launched as the highest original series debut in ABC Family's history for its target demo, the network decided to give the show a further 22-episodes in its first season. So while some people may think the episodes currently airing (after a March to September break in-between) are the second season, it’s actually just a stretched 32-episode first season. And there is a high likelihood that a second season will be commissioned. I certainly hope so, because in a very short time it has become a favourite show of mine.