TV Review: ABC Family’s ‘Switched at Birth’

In our podcast last week, Sepinwall and I discussed how difficult it sometimes is for a network to have a clear brand identity, while simultaneous fulfilling a mandate as a broadcaster. A point I made is that cable networks, with their ability to narrowcast rather than broadcast, should (and usually do) have a far easier time clarifying their brand identity.
That isn’t always the case, even on cable. TNT would have a hard time explaining how “The Closer,” “Men of a Certain Age,” “Falling Skies” and “Franklin & Bash” all belong wedged under the same programming umbrella. 
There are no such issues at ABC Family, which has a brand as clear and focused as any on cable. Yes, I’ve made a big deal about the network’s occasionally conflicted approach to its young teenage audience, the gap between sexy, edgier trash (“trash,” in this case, not necessarily meant as a pejorative) like “Pretty Little Liars” and preachier offerings like “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” or, in certain awkward moments, “Make It or Break It,” which may straddle the line as well as anything on ABC Family’s schedule (now that “Greek” is sadly departed). 
ABC Family’s brand is so strong that they’re launching four fairly different new shows this summer and all four — “Switched at Birth,” “State of Georgia,” “The Nine Lives of Chloe King” and “The Lying Game” – seem to be programs that could only air on ABC Family. [And several of the four seem destined to outdraw anything airing on The CW, which is content to be ABC Family’s buzzier broadcast equivalent.]
First to come off the assembly line is “Switched at Birth,” which takes an initially sensationalistic premise and treats it with dignity and attention to detail. Although it’s thematically clunky and occasionally dramatically stagnant, “Switched At Birth” is carried by a slew of likable performances and an admirable respect for its myriad complications. I wouldn’t say that I “enjoyed” to two episodes I watched, but I was interested in the way the storytelling unfolded.
Click through for a full review of “Switched At Birth.”
“Switched at Birth” has the backdrop of a Lifetime Original.
In a high school biology class, Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) takes a self-administered blood test and comes away with a type that’s genetically incompatible with her parents (D.W. Moffett and Lea Thompson). Although she lives a fairly perfect life — dad was a George Brett-esque star for the Royals and is now a prominent Kansas City businessman — Bay decides to upset the apple cart and with very little provocation learns that a mix-up occurred at the hospital when she was born. Her biological mother is actually Regina Vasquez (Constance Marie), who has been raising Daphne (Katie Leclerc) as her own for all of these years. 
Naturally, this raises all manner of stakes on its own but there’s more. [You probably want to stop reading here if you don’t want to be spoiled on a plot point that’s revealed very early in the pilot and is also a part of the show’s online synopsis, but is still presented as, to some degree, a surprise within the show.] Daphne is smart and beautiful and a star basketball player. But she’s also deaf, losing her hearing due to a bout of meningitis when she was three. ZOMG, right? Indeed.
Created by Lizzy Weiss (“Blue Crush”), “Switched at Birth” has a steady confidence in a premise puts enough on the table to fill several seasons of TV. There are convoluted steps that have to be taken to bring these two families together, but this isn’t a show that requires a murder or super-powers as an inciting event. You have two young women who have always had questions about their identity who now find themselves in position to get answers. And although this isn’t a “Parent Trap” situation,  the two girls are bound together in ways that are confusing for them to understand. You have three parents who all love the daughters they raised, but also want to make up for lost time with their new-found daughters. You have the inevitable possibility of lawsuits to consider. There’s one sibling (Lucas Grabeel as Bay’s brother, who now learns he’s Daphne’s brother) who has to figure out his place in this bizarrely blended family. 
And then, on top of all of that, there’s the deafness thing, which opens its own various worm-cans including cochlear surgeries, segregated deaf/hard-of-hearing education and the simple social niceties of polite interaction (i.e. “Yelling won’t help” and   “Five-way dinner-table conversations can confuse a lip-reader”). 
There are a couple romantic subplots on the side, but the first two episodes of “Switched at Birth” are focused on laying out as many implications for the main situation as possible, while acknowledging that none of the problems facing these two families can be resolved in 44 minutes. This is an emotionally messy show and I found myself solidly on-board with the refusal to make anything clean and instantly digestible. Eventually, I suspect ulterior motives are going to arise, but in the early going, the main characters in “Switched at Birth” all want to do the right thing, even if they don’t have a clue what “the right thing” is. The balance may almost be excessive, but it’s still engaging to have a show where, for the most part, every line of dialogue makes you go, “Well, I guess I can see where that person is coming from.”
Writing like that is organic to character, but that doesn’t mean it’s always natural. There’s a tendency on ABC Family’s less successful shows to forget about narrative momentum and just let exhausting scenes play out with characters yelling at each other, lecturing each other or throwing out blanket points-of-view in long monologues. Some sort of release valve is necessary, a break in the non-stop explanation and ideology. “Switched at Birth” can’t find that release valve, because even the aforementioned romantic subplots are inextricably linked to the show’s core exploration of teenage female identity. In its slower moments, and there are many, “Switched at Birth” feels like the poorly finessed melding of several position papers.
It’s also hard to dodge the racial awkwardness of the early episodes. When you stop to think about the embedded and reenforced stereotypes that illustrate which pieces of Bay’s Puerto Rican nature have managed to supersede her WASP-y upbringing, you’re likely to cringe. You’ll also probably cringe when you see how Weiss and director Steve Miner depict the “ghetto” the Vasquezs initially reside in. 
Plus, there are gigantic elephants in the corner that the show avoids mentioning in the early-going that many (most?) viewers are going to find far more pressing than the things that get long discussion. To wit: It’s somewhat plausible to think that Lea Thompson and D.W. Moffett might suggest that some long-recessive genes might have risen to the surface and given them a daughter who looks like Vanessa Marano. The question of how Constance Marie came to be raising a daughter who looks like Katie Leclerc without some pretty big red flags is less easily resolved and, in the early going, entirely unaddressed. Do I suspect that issue is going to get discussed eventually? Yes. Do I suspect it’s going to be crucial eventually? Yes. Does it still feel like something that really ought to have come up within the first two episodes? Yes.
There’s also a tough line “Switched at Birth” walks with the depiction of deafness, simultaneously managing great tact and silly cartoonishness. Long sequences both at Daphne’s school and in conversations with her friends play out in marvelous silence, with the signing unembellished by either excessive ambient noise or music. It’s a very smart, subtle choice. But that subtly is gone when stupid people react to Daphne with hammy predictability and cringe-worthy obviousness. 
Carrying “Switched at Birth” over the bumpy patches is the main cast. Thompson and Marie are TV veterans who are more than capable of nailing the “worried mom” parts, while Moffett admirably relaxed and less smarmy than he’s been for years. Marano has the more volatile of the young characters and the places where she fails to convince are the fault of unwieldy writing, not her performance.
The discovery/standout is Leclerc, who shines whether she’s acting wordlessly, or when she’s speaking with a clarity that is, at times, almost too perfect (the actress has a degenerative inner-ear condition and is hard of hearing, but not deaf). My favorite scenes in the first couple episodes were between LeClerc and Sean Berdy, as as Daphne’s friend and protector Emmett, who proves to be less interested in integrating with the hearing-enabled world. I watched those scenes and felt like they were something I’d rarely seen before on television, often wishing that everything else could be similarly fresh.
Although on-brand for ABC Family, “Switched at Birth” is still a middle-ground show. It’s better than “Pretty Little Liars” or “Secret Life,” but it’s less tawdry than the former and less creepily sanctimonious than the latter, which will probably make it less popular. However, it’s not as narratively fluid as “Huge,” which will simultaneously lead to less critically admiration, but also a bigger audience. The issues discussed in the last few paragraphs are pretty major for me as a viewer, but I still expect I’ll give “Switched at Birth” a few more episodes. I felt lectured to, but I didn’t feel preached at and that’s a big distinction that sometimes gets lost in the ABC Family development process.
“Switched at Birth” premieres on Monday, June 6 at 9 p.m. on ABC Family.