teen beat

In Praise of Switched at Birth

Photo: ABC Family

I like teen shows. I like shows about women and girls. I like shows about people who like each other and treat each other decently. I like family-set shows that aren’t about misery. I like Switched at Birth. I like it a lot. I like it so much, I’m pretty sure it’s teaching me American Sign Language.

I like other kinds of shows, too, but there’s a part of my soul that craves stories about mostly happy families. (Parenthood brings me great joy on this front.) Switched, on ABC Family, is about two high-school girls who discover that they were, yep, switched at birth: Basketball-playing, overachieving Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc), who has been raised by a Latina single mom Regina (Constance Marie), is actually the biological daughter of wealthy, white John and Kathryn Kennish (D.W. Moffett and Lea Thompson), while they have raised artsy outsider Bay (Vanessa Marano), Regina’s offspring. And yet the revelation that no one’s quite who they thought they were doesn’t send everything into a horrible hate-spiral. Instead, everyone — parents, kids, a sibling, a grandma — decides to make a go of things, to sort of smush their families together and get to know each other. Daphne’s been deaf since age 3; she speaks and reads lips, and she and Regina sign. So the Kennishes start learning ASL, too, with varying success. Everyone learns a lot! About love and family and deaf culture and each other!

Is it corny? Oh, sure, sometimes. Bay’s enthusiasm for street art, for example, sometimes seems like it’s lifted from a Readers Digest panic article about the Dangerous Things Your Kids Are Secretly Doing. But I can take corny. What I can’t take is phony, and Switched doesn’t gloss over its emotionally fraught premise. There’s plenty of fighting. The parents fight over boundaries, the girls fight over mutual jealousy (and sometimes boys), each girl fights with each family unit. The show’s extended universe includes plenty of other fighty situations, too: Daphne’s childhood best friend Emmett (Sean Berdy), who becomes Bay’s boyfriend, frequently butts heads with his mother (Marlee Matlin); the girls’ sort-of deadbeat dad (Bay’s biological father, Daphne’s sociological one) ruffles everyone’s feathers; Daphne gets a job with an argumentative chef; and Bay falls in with street art’s shady underbelly. Throw in the pedestrian frustrations of being a teenager, and just stand back and watch the conflict bubble up over and over.

This is how Switched at Birth became the apologizing-est show in history. The characters do things wrong and then — like decent, admirable but imperfect humans — they say they’re sorry, and they try to explain themselves. It’s enchanting, really, that level of personal accountability. There are more apologies per episode of this show than per season of most others. The first ASL sign I picked up from the series? “I’m sorry.” (Right hand in a fist, rubbed over your heart.)

Amid all this fighting and apologizing, and all the plot points you’d expect from a teen show (like heartfelt talks about virginity or battles of the bands), Switched sneaks in some serious conversations about ableism, privilege, and the breadth of experiences within any culture. Emmett, who is deaf, decides he wants to take speech classes to better communicate with his hearing girlfriend Bay — and his (also deaf) mother flips out. She describes how dehumanizing and awful speech classes were for her when she was a child, when she wasn’t allowed to sign. She can’t believe Emmett would subject himself to something like that, but he argues that it’s just not that big a deal, that they don’t teach those classes that way anymore. For his mom, this is a civil-rights conversation; for Emmett, in the moment, it’s more of a cosmetic issue. When Bay decides she wants to go to a pilot program for hearing students at the otherwise all-deaf school Daphne and Emmett go to, she’s horrified not to be welcomed with open arms. This was the one place I didn’t have to accommodate you, her new nemesis tells her. You can be the most deaf-friendly hearing person in the world — and Bay probably considers herself at least among the top ten — but that does not approximate the experience of being deaf or hard of hearing.

Again, Switched can be kind of cornball, and it’s not in that Friday Night LightsMy So-Called Life rarefied space of ecstatically perfect adolescent depiction. But it’s light years better than most ostensibly “feel good” shows — because it’s the unusual show that actually does make me feel good. Pretty Little Liars is fun for its bonkers plot twists, and The Carrie Diaries charms me with its incredible earnestness. Awkward. is delightfully subversive, and Teen Wolf surprisingly exciting. I will never tire of the progressive politics and breakneck plotting of Degrassi. But if I actually had to spend time around any of the characters from my many teen shows, I’d pick the characters from Switched at Birth. Plus, hey, my budding ASL skills would come in handy.

In Praise of Switched at Birth