ABC Family continues its string of quality family series with this newcomer, Switched at Birth. It takes a “grabbed from the headlines” setup- two teenage girls discover that they were switched at the hospital when they were born- and makes it into a heartwarming and compelling drama. Unlike so many shows featuring teens that use high concept as a way to tell stories about life (i.e. horror in The Vampire Diaries or the Dynasty lifestyles of the Gossip Girl characters), Switched at Birth has two families dealing with a horrible event and coping with the consequences in a realistic way. Furthermore, the series deals with deafness (one of the main characters is deaf, as are several of her friends) and grants viewers a brief glimpse of what it’s like to be hearing impaired.
Artistic teenager, Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) lives in a wealthy neighborhood with her stay at home mom (Lea Thompson), her ex-baseball playing dad (D.W. Moffett) and her older brother, Toby (Lucas Grabeel). After a school project reveals that Bay doesn’t share the same blood type with anyone in her family, she convinces her parents to have a genetic test. They discover that Bay is not actually their biological daughter and that she was switched at birth with another girl, Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc). The Kennishs decide to meet the Vasquezs, a family that couldn’t be any more different than theirs.
Daphne’s mom (Constance Marie) is a single parent raising her daughter in a crummy neighborhood. That isn’t the biggest surprise, though. Daphne is deaf, having lost her hearing after getting meningitis when she was a child. Daphne can read lips and is an expert in sign language. As she proves to everyone in both families, she does not let her disability stop her from being an average teenager. In fact, throughout the course of the first season, Daphne’s struggles (young love, sense of identity, betrayal) are everything we’ve all been though, except that she can not hear.
When Daphne’s mom is at risk of losing her house and moving to Ohio, Bay asks her parents if the Vasquez family can temporarily move into the vacant Kennish guest house. Of course, you know Bay’s mom and dad are going to agree to this TV contrivance, but the writers allow for the revelation and this set up to come naturally, as opposed to rushing into it within the first half hour. I didn’t mind this direction in the show since I know there have to be allowances in order to set up future conflict and stories. Even my beloved Friday Night Lights was known to come up with some all too convenient TV set ups.
After the pilot episode pushes the two families together and does its best to introduce all of the important supporting characters, Switched at Birth slows down a little and allows for the characters to begin growing. This was especially true with Bay’s parents, who were a little too pushy and cloying in the pilot. Thompson, at times, is a little annoying in the show, but Moffett does a nice job as a father trying to do what’s best for his new, extended family. Marie is strong as Daphne’s mom and Grabeel continues to grow as an actor. Even though this is technically still a Disney project (Disney owns ABC Family), I feel that after Milk and with this series, he may finally be able to shed the High School Musical yolk he’s been wearing.
As for the two leads, Marano can be grating, especially when she’s trying to be a rebel. I wish someone would rein her in. Leclerc, on the other hand, is exceptional. If you’re wondering whether or not to watch Switched at Birth, I would give it a chance just to see this young actress perform. Although she is not deaf, like Daphne, Leclerc does suffer from Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that can affect hearing and balance to a varying degree. It is characterized by episodes of vertigo and tinnitus and degenerative hearing loss.
Switched at Birth: Volume One contains the first ten episodes from the first season, all of which aired this past summer. Included with the purchase is a Switched at Birth exclusive collectible iPod skin, containing some of the unique artwork that Bay tags on the side of houses. If you’re looking for a last minute gift for the teen in your house, or if you want an enjoyable, light way to spend some of your time off, I would recommend this show. Happy Holidays.