ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth” was one of 2011’s pleasant surprises.
The potentially tawdry tale of two teenage girls who discover they were [the title doesn’t lie] switched at birth — One’s an aspiring artist raised by wealthy parents, one’s a deaf basketball player raced by a blue collar single mom — was rendered with enough sensitivity and nuance to earn a place on my Second 10 of 2011 list.
In addition to being unexpectedly good, “Switched at Birth” also proved extremely successful for ABC Family, which gave the drama a back-22, bringing its first season to a whopping 32 episodes.
“Switched at Birth” returns on Tuesday (January 3) for the second block of episodes and I chatted with series creator Lizzy Weiss (“Blue Crush”) about what’s in store for Daphne (Katie Leclerc) and Bay (Vanessa Marano), their newly blended families and, of course, Emmett (Sean Berdy).
Click through for the full Q&A…
HitFix: So you haven’t aired since August, but the premiere this week is technically still the first season. How has the segmentation impacted you guys from a production and a storytelling standpoint?
Lizzy Weiss: Production-wise we went off for a while and came back in August and we started shooting again in October. Storywise, to me it doesn’t matter. I just keep telling the story. I felt so lucky and excited that the network was so behind the show and that they went ahead and ordered 22 more. We knew we had a lot of time, at that point, to tell the stories that we wanted to tell in the way we wanted to tell them. We don’t have to quickly tell something in case we’re off the air, but we don’t think of it as “A first season story” or “A second season story.” We just keep going with the angle that we were excited about telling.
HitFix: How about that rather huge back-end order, the 22 episodes. Does that have any impact on the storytelling? Or is that just another example of how you’re telling the story you’re telling, regardless of “season”?
LW: I guess we started thinking in a batch. That is true. We had anticipated just coming back for another 10 and instead we got 22. So we did arc out… Have you seen the premiere?
LW: So you know that we spend a little bit more time in this batch of episodes finding out about what happened at the hospital that day. So that is a story that we didn’t have time for in the first 10, but we started in this 12 and we’re going to continue, so that’s one arc of our season. But we have other arcs that are just for this 12. For example, we have a new character. You see Simone, who we’ve always alluded to, who was always Bay’s excuse every she was out for the night, she’d say she was at Simone’s house. So I just thought that, finally, I just wanted to meet Simone, so she plays a big role in this batch. And we have Wilke [Austin Butler], so we just really explore the Daphne/Wilke relationship. We do a lot more with Toby’s music. But one of my favorite things is really diving into the Bay-Emmett relationship and the intricacies and complexities. You see in the premiere: What is it like dating someone deaf if you’re hearing and hearing if you’re deaf and all of the challenges of that. We spend a lot of time really being truthful about that. I didn’t want to do a contrived triangle that felt like other shows where it was just back-and-forth for reasons that viewers couldn’t relate to, where they would yell at the screen going, “That’s ridiculous.” I always try to make the characters behave as close to real life as possible, so that’s why we have the Bay-Emmett relationship and we dive in to see what would happen.
HitFix: How much of that Bay-Emmett relationship was always planned and how much was a product of realizing how good Sean Berdy is?
LW: I have to say that I absolutely adore Sean Berdy, but at the end of the pilot, it’s scripted “A look between Bay and Emmett.” At the end, as he pulls up on his motorcycle to take Daphne away, there’s a look scripted between Emmett and Bay. A lot of viewers picked up on that pretty early on when I read the response, like “Oh, did I sense something between them?” So it was something I had always planned. And I knew Sean was that good in his audition. He just popped off the screen. The audition process for the part of Emmett, and for Daphne, was pretty incredible. We looked all over the country, all over the world, for a Daphne and Sean sent in a video of himself doing a scene from the pilot from his school in Indiana and right there we knew, “That guy has incredible charisma” and we flew him in and he did a reading with us and he did a chemistry reading with Katie [Leclerc], so we knew. We knew he had it. Of course, we got lucky that they had such great chemistry, but it was intended all along.
HitFix: How gratifying is it, then, that audiences have been so quick to respond to Sean like you guys did?
LW: Yeah! I am so excited for him. Just so much this year, I’ve read so many things saying things like “One of the most underrated performers” and “One of the best characters on television in the year” and I’m so thrilled for him. He really deserves it and I hope people find other parts for him in the movies and everything else after this. I hope this just launches his career and Katie’s too. Yeah, you know, we really stepped up their friendship and relationship in the first 10 and I think it was in Episode 6 and 7 when we started seeing them interact and I was like, “Whew. They’re amazing together. Thank goodness. So we can really do this.” They had great chemistry. There’s that great scene in the junkyard in Episode 7 where they’re looking for Angelo’s car and they’re playing sorta a game of charades, because she doesn’t know sign language yet, and they were so cute together and sat in the editing room going, “Oh. Amazing. They’re fantastic. This is going to work.”
HitFix: This is early in a show’s run to have turned three main characters inward into a love triangle. Do you have any fears that getting into that love triangle so early runs the risk of making the show more insular, that it collapses in on itself a little, relationship-wise?
LW: No. As I said, we’re not doing that, really. In the summer finale, Emmett made himself pretty clear. He said, “I’m with Bay.” So I’m not gonna spend a lot of time doing an insular triangle where it feels like people get claustrophobic and they don’t care anymore. We really do open it up. So, no. I like new characters too. My favorite thing is new combinations of characters. Every time we come up with a scene or story that is two characters that we haven’t seen before, I get so excited. We’re desperately trying to find a Melody [Marlee Matlin]/Wilke episode. We like to keep things fresh. I love thinking of and seeing these characters together who would be so unlikely like that.
HitFix: That’s obviously one of the cares of the show, these reconfigured and rearranged characters. Which pairings have you been the most surprised to find that you love working with?
LW: Kathryn [Lea Thompson] and Regina [Constance Marie] are always gold. They’ve been gold since the pilot, since that moment in the pilot at the end where Kathryn says, “The house is yours, the bar is yours” and Regina kinda gives her the rules, which were “I don’t walk into your house, you don’t walk into mine.” I love that moment so much. They have such great conflict that feels really inherent and real. We really do use the two moms as a very valid voice for two different styles of parenting — Sort of helicopter parenting and then more of an independent — and sometimes they switch, sometimes they’re not necessarily on the side that you’d think they’d be on. But I always try… The world has always been, from the beginning, and I tell the writers, there are no bad guys and every single person has a valid point. Even with the motorcycle fight in Episode 2 of our first batch of episodes, I felt like it was a valid question for Kathryn to ask, “Oh are deaf people allowed to drive?” I did a lot of research on the deaf culture and the deaf experience and I hear a lot of people ask that question or have people say that they were asked that question, so it didn’t seem like something only someone uneducated would ask. I thought she was being protective of her daughter and I also felt like it was valid for Regina to take umbrage and think that was a really uneducated question and to get annoyed. So, I love Kathryn and Regina together. I would say that in the first 10 we did more with Daphne and Regina and that relationship, which I always loved, but since the secret came out, we’re doing more with Regina and Bay. They’re getting to know each other in this midseason batch, which didn’t happen last time. We always love doing the girls and Daphne and Bay have an episode, Episode 4 — or episode 14, but the fourth episode of this batch — where they’re together the whole episode trying to do something for Emmett. And John [D.W. Moffett] and Daphne, we’ve done a lot with this season, that’s such an emotional father-daughter relationship. But there are so many combinations.
HitFix: You have a core premise and a title for this show that obviously could lend themselves to sensationalism. How hard have you guys had to work to push against that inherent sensationalism?
LW: That’s not my style, so from Day One, the network was very supportive and the pilot I wrote is the pilot that was shot and they never pushed me to make it anything that it wasn’t. I think we all agree that what makes it work is that it’s so grounded and honest and the characters always behave like real characters would behave and we don’t put melodrama on them. I have a very strict rule that we don’t get too treacly or melodramatic and that everything feels really grounded. So personally, as long as I have anything to do with it, it’s not hard for me. I feel like what makes the show interesting to fans is that they can relate to it. And, of course, I’ve read so much on the fan forums, a lot of adopted kids and parents of adopted children really relate, because there are a lot of the similar issues, so it feels like it’s been very cathartic for people to see these things played out in a similar way.
HitFix: Is the other side of the coin harder to avoid? You have sensationalism on one side but then you have the After School Special, “This is good for you,” “This will be enriching” aspect. Is that something that you steer away from?
LW: Yes. Yes. We always want to earn our emotions and we have such emotional moments: Emmett speaking and Regina’s secret coming out and so many. I’m a mom and I thought of the idea when I was pregnant with my daughter and I already had my son at the time and when I thought of the idea, it was so emotional and raw to me: What if someone walked in my door and said, “He’s not yours and I’m going to tell you how to raise him” or “I’m going to tell you what you’re doing wrong, because he’s really mine.” It was so personal to me. I think that’s what makes it so universal. We have this whole audience that is older that are moms — moms in particular, though I think men are too — watching, who didn’t typically watch the network, because the hook itself is so worldwide accessible. What would happen if that happened to you? Anyone who is a parent, it’s just the most emotional thing that you could imagine, finding out that your kid isn’t really yours and that you have a kid somewhere else that someone else is raising. It’s terrifying.
HitFix: You mentioned earlier that this batch of episodes pushes more heavily into the law suit and the stuff with the hospital. How long do you see that arc as being central to the story?
LW: We have some twists and turns in this 12 and then we have another 10 to end the first season and we continue it through that and we know what we want to do in the season finale of the first season, which is 32 episodes, so we’ll probably continue it through those 22.
HitFix: And that story arc, which takes you away from the domestic stories, what do you think it lets you do that you want to tackle?
LW: It’s a different energy for the show. As we were talking about, there’s so much emotion and parents — mother/daughter and father/daugher — and teenage stuff that happens with the other stories, so it’s a different type of energy that balances the show that we love. It’s just like at the end of Episode 2, where Kathryn says about Regina, “She’s hiding something, I know it.” It’s just a little of an energy that makes you go, “Oh! Is there something else that we don’t know about?” which is, again, completely grounded. I think some people in that moment, or in the first 10, thought “Oh, Regina switched the kids on purpose” and I suppose there could have been a grounded way to do that, but I certainly always intended to make it feel as real as possible. I told Constance as we shot the pilot. I told her the secret and I said, “I’m only telling you, don’t tell anyone else, but I just want you to know that as you play this scene.” But I always intended to have that and to keep it as real as possible.
HitFix: With that character, with Regina, we know that she has her alcoholism in her backstory. And on TV shows, you know that something like that is inevitably going to become a plot point and that you’ve got that relapse, that big dramatic moment, looming. Do you fear that that’s coming or do you embrace that that’s coming?
LW: [Chuckle.] I think right now that it’s the truth of all alcoholics, it’s that it’s always there as a threat and, for now, that’s all it is. And it’s just always there as a threat. It could bring you down. And it’s something that Regina’s mom, Adrianna, is the only one who really knows about, and Angelo. Daphne didn’t really experience it and none of the other family members experienced it, so Adrianna’s the voice of reason, who’s the only one who can really say, “You need to remember this, that Angelo’s dangerous for you, because he was a bridge to that world where you were that other person.”
HitFix: And I assume that the reaction from the deaf advocacy community has been overwhelmingly positive. Have there been any notable concerns raised?
LW: You know, sure. But I was prepared. I screened the pilot for Marlee, even before she was a part of the show, and she said to me, “Whenever you have anything this complex or complicated that you put on screen and you show truth and aren’t PC about it, people will complain about it. But don’t worry. You’re doing something great by putting it out there and having conversations about it.” So we try to just do what we can to make it — You know, we have deaf consultants and I’ve done a ton of research and all of the writers are constantly researching as well — to make it true and we try not to worry about it too much.
“Switched at Birth” returns to ABC Family on Tuesday, January 3 at 8 p.m.