Switched At Birth premieres tonight on ABC Family at 9 p.m. Eastern.
If you look at it with a bit of a tilted head, ABC Family can seem like a network with multiple personalities. This isn’t because its moniker has the word “family” in it, despite the channel frequently subverting what is commonly thought of as family programming (the name is due to an old deal that requires the channel to include the word family and air The 700 Club in perpetuity) but because their original programming has what appears to be two distinct tones: earnest sincerity (The Secret Life of the American Teenager) and vacuous superficiality (Pretty Little Liars), with the spare show that falls directly between the two tonal camps (Make It or Break It).
Although there are tonal differences, ABC Family’s programming targets the same young audience once doted on by The WB, and even though The CW somewhat puzzlingly continues to exist as a major network, despite dismal ratings, ABC Family has unofficially become the successor to the old WB legacy, airing several shows over the past few years that would have fit in right next to classic WB titles such as Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, not all of ABC Family's programming is up to the quality of The WB of yore: Many of its creative high points were either canceled due to old age (Greek) or a limited audience (Huge, The Middleman), but while the network's current shows might not be creative zeniths, they are certainly well-made and almost always ridiculously enjoyable. Except for The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which is like some strange televised torture device designed to take years off of my life by simply existing. But I digress.
Even though the network has had many successes of late, most recently with the extremely popular Pretty Little Liars, ABC Family still has a lot of work to do to build up a solid roster of returning shows. This summer, it's debuting two new dramas hoping to gain traction, the first of which is family drama Switched at Birth, a show that at first glance appears to be more on the earnest sincerity side of the aforementioned programming scale.
Switched at Birth throws us into the lives of two teens who suddenly find out they were accidentally, well, switched at birth by a negligent hospital employee. The teens in question are Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano, likely best known as Luke’s controversial daughter on Gilmore Girls), a misunderstood artist in a family of jocks, and Daphne Vasquez (relative newcomer Katie Leclerc), who has been deaf since she was 3 years old. Adding another layer to the awkwardness of this situation is a somewhat interesting exploration of class issues, as Bay’s affluent traditional family has all of the worldly things Daphne’s working class single mother lacks. In fact, the class differences almost overshadow the more inherent angst of the switch, as the Kennish family immediately judges Daphne’s situation in a deaf school surrounded by other deaf kids to be inferior and uses its influence to bring her closer to the family's world by offering to pay her way into the Kennish kids’ tony prep school. Naturally, Daphne’s mother (nicely played by Constance Marie) instinctively pushes back against this influence. It’s not a groundbreaking story, per se, but there aren’t many places in the current television landscape that class is dealt with in this frank of a matter, and it adds a measure of richness to the story that would likely be lacking otherwise. These class issues (and a guest house dangled like Chekov’s gun) also are used in a way to set up the entire landscape of the coming series, which is a somewhat delicate touch.
Beyond these initial pleasures, the pilot episode does struggle with a few things. It’s not as angsty as it probably needs to be, considering the gravity of the circumstances, although there is plenty of time to explore that in future episodes. Still, for something so incredibly life-altering as being raised by a family that isn’t technically your own, there is surprisingly little screen time devoted to serious conversations or private reflections about the monumental news. Angst is shown as reaction more than reflection—getting a nose ring and getting arrested are a few examples—which sets up a tone perhaps contrary to one I would prefer but not necessarily one contrary to being effective for the story the writers are trying to tell. Angst levels are definitely something subject to personal preferences, and I personally enjoy more tears in my sentimental drama.
Another issue is characterizations that are a bit too broadly drawn. Hey, Daphne is athletic just like her biological older brother and former baseball star father! And look, Bay is artistic, just like her biological mother! No wonder they never fit in with their families! ABC Family isn’t necessarily the place you go looking for subtlety, and a pilot episode is especially not known to be nuance friendly, but it’s still about three steps too cute. Most of this shorthand character building is required here, though, because of the sheer amount of plot the producers are trying to cram into the premiere. Not only must all major players be introduced—and there are quite a few of them, between two families, friends, and likely future love interests—but (and forgive me while I am vague so as not to spoil the ending), it also must twist and turn its characters into various different situations in order to get everyone where they need to be by the end of the hour. The ending is a catchy hook for viewers, admittedly, but adamantly plot-driven in a way I doubt will continue throughout the series as a whole. All I’m saying is, it could have waited until episode two, you know? The pilot needed a bit more room to breathe.
The final level of concern comes from the way the show deals with Daphne’s deafness. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a wonderful thing to build a character in this situation around. Already, she’s automatically alien, not only to her new family but to the rest of the world she lives in and the audience as well, and that alien nature will provide a multitude of story possibilities for the character. Living as a deaf person in a hearing world isn’t something often explored, and if handled with care, it has the potential to be great. It’s especially heartening to see the show’s commitment to sign language: Although Daphne can read lips, the characters sign along with the dialogue and she has friends who only communicate via sign, which we follow through subtitles. The reservations come in moments like when Daphne meets her biological mother Kristen (Lea Thompson) for the first time, and Kristen starts screaming right in Daphne’s face. That is a cliché no one needed to see again, no matter how “true” it might be in real life. Here’s hoping moments of that sort aren’t revisited too often, and if they are, they're handled with a bit more complexity.
For every moment like that the producers get wrong, though, they get one very right. The image of Daphne’s biological father John (D.W. Moffett) fruitlessly calling to his daughter before remembering she can’t hear him and then hearing the sounds of her neighborhood in the background as it sinks in just what he takes for granted in his world every day is quite powerful. Also effective is Daphne’s visit to the new prep school, when all dialogue drops out of the sound mix, so the audience can experience the disorientation she feels right along with her. It’s a brief moment but feels essential in a way that’s unexpected and kind of wonderful. Little beats such as this hint at a show looking to reach a little bit further, and those moments are what will draw me back for another episode.
Yes, despite all of the issues I laid out in the above paragraphs, I will be back. Switched at Birth isn’t the most innovative summer show of the season or the most sexy summer show on even its own network, but it might be the one with the most potential for broad appeal. Let’s face it: There aren’t many straight family dramas left these days, and despite the somewhat high-concept nature of the premise for the genre, this is likely going to evolve into what could be a very basic, solid family drama. The acting is quite good, especially by Katie Leclerc as Daphne (you sort of can’t take your eyes off her, and not just because she’s signing), and the writing shows some promise, although the series could use a few more comedic moments in future episodes. Overall, if you’re a fan of family drama, ABC Family series, or old-school WB-style programming in general, the show is worth a look. Here’s hoping it lives up to its potential.