One could easily lump Switched at Birth in among the ranks of the typical melodramatic soapy family dramas, wrought with teen angst, but to do so would be a mistake: Switched at Birth has much more inimitable qualities, placing it above the average-teen centered drama. It’s not only entertaining, but also compelling and thoughtful television. At the core of the series is the unique relationship between the two very different female leads who are both equally the protagonist of the series. Theirs is a relationship unlike any other on TV, as they have essentially been living each other’s life.
The series’ premise is that a girl, named Bay, discovers that when she was born, she was mistakenly given to an upper class family with the surname Kennish, while their biological daughter, Daphne, was given to the lower middle class Vasquez family. After discovering the switch, a torrent of questions are raised and conflicts between families are waged and disputes made all around. Questions like, how do the two switch back to the proper families and should they even do that, or should the wealthy family be allowed to monetarily provide for their estranged daughter? Which family has the higher authority in how to raise the two girls and on whom do they take out their outrage for such a life-altering mistake, anyway?
These issues are dealt with excellently within the first season, which is consistent and involving dramatic television. One of the most notable aspects of the series is how the show impeccably integrates a deaf character as one of the main leads without this being abrasive to the audience or slowing down the narrative. The series beautifully presents to the audience an understanding of and an appreciation for the difficulties a deaf character has to go through on a daily basis, with honest portrayals by cast members who are in real life deaf, which brings an authenticity to the show. The series also frequently utilizes ASL (American Sign Language), subtitling every line signed by not only the deaf performers but also the hearing ones as well, as ASL is a commonly used language on the series.
Featuring the deaf community and ASL may be what the show is most well known for, but that is not all that it has to offer. The show is also a great character-driven series. Consider the two leads Bay and Daphne, who were switched and therefore given the life of the other by mere circumstance. It brings up questions of nature versus nurture, of race identity, of class upbringing and of soul searching. The characterization is also excellent. The two girls are distinctive from one another and there are qualities that are seeded by their biological families that appear in them despite where they grew up, along with influences of their environment. They learn things about themselves from each other as well. Bay is artistic, bold, and emotional while Daphne is pragmatic, thoughtful, and cheery. These are two very different girls that have a deep connection, one that blooms into a friendship and a sisterhood that bonds them. This is a fascinating female relationship, one that is not as explored on your average family or teen drama series. The characters are also very smartly drawn and endearing in their own specific ways and that has to do with the incredible casting of Vanessa Marano and Katie Leclerc, who both excel in charisma and talent.
The remarkable casting doesn’t end with the leads either. The families are also very well cast, with featured players such Constance Marie as Regina Vasquez, Lea Thompson as Katherine Kennish, and DW Moffet as John Kennish. Each of the parents have wonderful depth of character, with a variety of flaws that go hand in hand with their good intentions and are brought out during conflicts with one another. Other notable cast members are Marley Maitlin and Sean Berdy, who are mother and son deaf characters that have appeared regularly on the series. Both are incredibly likable and have been given equally involving, deep characters. Throughout its four seasons, the show has brought in many interesting guest cast members as well, including RJ Mitte, Meredith Baxter, Tania Raymonde, Joey Lauren Adams, and Shelly Long.
One of the main commendation of the series is its great ability to maintain the theme of identity and family as well as tackle real life issues with respect for their complexity. The characters are written with intelligence and even when they do things that are wrong or could be considered dumb, their reasoning is clear. To be fair, this does not always come through with each and every episode, but even the rare strange character turn is addressed with an answer that justifies those actions to an extent, and there are consequences to actions that stay with the characters for long periods of time. There is also an underlying theme of art appreciation throughout the series, as Bay is an artist. In fact, each episode is titled after a famous painting or image.
The last thing I will say for the show is that it is as extremely entertaining as it is enthralling. There is a comedy and wit in the dialogue that comes out of the characters and stems from a very human and wholesome place. The show also has the capability to stretch out into the fantastical and explore the characters creatively by playing with the medium of television, having their own high concept episodes such as episode eight of season three, “Dance Me to the End of Love”, where the characters express their emotions through dance in the same way characters would break into song in a musical or as in the groundbreaking episode nine of season two, “Uprising”, wherein almost the entire episode is told using ASL with almost no spoken dialogue throughout. The highlight of these high concept episodes is the “What if…” episode that explores an alternate timeline where both girls are raised by the Kennishs, episode 15 of season two, “Ecce Mono.”
Overall the series the series has a lot to offer, with its great characters and fascinating explorations of their extended family situation as well as consistently well-crafted stories that are at times creative or introspective, but always entertaining.