Switched at Birth is one of those shows that I initially wrote off but ended up loving once I gave it a chance. As you can probably guess from the title, the show is about characters who were switched at birth. Of course, the characters find out about their switch and drama ensues. This show airs on ABC Family, which hasn’t produced entertainment of particularly high quality as of late, so I was very skeptical when this show premiered. I know the ~drama~ this channel likes to pump into its shows at the expense of character and story development, and the premise of this show set itself up for dramatic dramatized drama in spades.
I am glad to report that this show is actually fantastically written and, while it does dip itself into soap opera territory with certain plot elements, it is overall a very smart show.
The two girls switched are named Daphne and Bay. Bay (the brunette in the above image) is raised by the wealthy Kennish family consisting of Kathryn, John, and older brother Toby while Daphne (the redhead) loses her hearing as a child and is raised by a single mother named Regina Vasquez, whose estranged husband Angelo was absent for most of Daphne’s adolescence. The show explores some really intricate themes but especially the ideas of who these girls are, who they would have been, and which (if either) is who they are supposed to be.
One of the first reasons I was skeptical of the show was the obvious genetic incompatibility of the families. It should have been pretty obvious to the Italian/Latina couple that their fair-skinned, red-haired little girl didn’t come from their genetic material. I’ll give the other family a bit of a pass because the daughter they raised is relatively fair-skinned and the father does have dark hair at least. I suppose Angelo and Regina could have just assumed they both carried recessive genes for red hair and blue eyes… but I was still side-eyeing them a bit.
Watching the show, however, this issue is addressed directly and bluntly. We find out that Angelo did not believe that Daphne was his daughter and abandoned the family due to his increasing suspicions that his wife was unfaithful and his inability to deal with Daphne’s loss of hearing. Though he has tried to smooth things over, Daphne has remained largely unmoved by his attempts.
What I find much more interesting about the show’s handling of this issue of race, however, is the way Bay and Daphne deal with the implications. Bay has grown up in a world of privilege and suddenly learns that she is actually a racial minority. She suddenly sees the way people write off the lower income Hispanics in her city and knows now that had she been raised by her biological mother that would be her life. She feels confused and cheated when she receives preferential treatment because of her wealth and status because she’s now acutely aware that this is not the way everyone is treated and not the way she would be treated if not for the switch.
Dealing with the same issues from the opposite end, Daphne starts to be treated differently because she’s no longer seen as the marginalized girl she once was. Her friends can’t seem to relate to her once she begins a relationship with her rich, white biological family and they claim that she’s changed. Daphne grew up facing the hardships of not only her physical disability but her low socioeconomic status as well and now those hardships are being discredited because she’s no longer disadvantaged enough.
Speaking of Daphne’s hardships, her deafness plays a huge role in the show and is another of my favorite aspects. When I saw the previews I thought the deafness would be a gimmick, another point of unnecessary drama, or an excuse for lazy writing but it is none of the above. Daphne being deaf is handled with grace and maturity and the depictions of the deaf community are varied and fascinating on this show.
Not only do the deaf characters provide for great stories, they provide excellent opportunities for actors with disabilities. As far as I know, every actor playing a deaf character on the show does indeed have some degree of hearing loss, whether that be complete deafness or hearing impairment. This not only makes the show more believable but it makes it more important. There are very few roles made for actors with disabilities and it’s even rarer for any such actors to play non-disabled characters so when the opportunity comes along for them to have meaningful employment it is great to see. The show offers a great voice to this marginalized group.
The show’s second season premiered last night (even though it’s been running since 2011 and has had a handful of premieres and finales. ABC Family runs their seasons weird) and looks to be off to another great start. There were great moments of emotional impact, new elements that could lead to interesting stories, and character choices that look to be moving forward and growing stronger. Of course there were some typical forced points of drama which will probably end up with more camera time than I want to see, but overall I think the show is still in great shape.