WIRED Binge-Watching Guide: Switched at Birth
It’s common for shows that stick out a little bit from the pack in a familiar genre to be praised as “unlike anything else” on television. That label gets used not to truly distinguish something unique, but to shower heavy praise. It’s rare for a show to actually take a narrative into new, previously unseen territory on the entertainment landscape. But over on ABC Family, the under-the-radar Switched at Birth has earned the praiseworthy label for nearly four seasons.
Set in Kansas City, the show follows two families whose daughters were, you guessed it, switched at birth. The wealthy Kennish family—former Royals baseball player John (D.W. Moffett), his wife Kathryn (Lea Thompson), and eldest son Toby (cas Grabeel)—went home with Bay (Vanessa Marano), whose artistic prowess never quite fit in with her athletic family. Meanwhile, single mother Regina Vasquez (Constance Marie) took home Daphne (Katie Leclerc). Discovering the switch would be enough for a standard family melodrama, but Switched at Birth breaks ground because Daphne contracted meningitis as a child, which left her deaf as a result. So the show not only deals with the emotional turmoil of two families drawn together unexpectedly through a switch that retroactively explains so many differences, but it also pitches headfirst into the world of American Sign Language, deaf education, and audism.
Because it’s on ABC Family, there’s a healthy amount of Degrassi-esque emphasis on teenage romance and petty squabbling. But there’s also a wealth of nuanced discussion about disabilities, socioeconomic gaps, and the meaning of parenthood. It would have been easy for the network to produce another cookie-cutter soap opera along the lines of 7th Heaven, but creator Lizzy Weiss has shaped a world that takes familiar tropes of this television genre and maps them onto characters previously unseen on television before now. Those familiar elements—from love triangles to cheating scandals to teenage rebellion—are all emotionally stirring, but Switched at Birth is an opportunity to open minds up to considering how deaf people approach a world that is often not designed for them to achieve their full potential within it.
Sound interesting? Here’s how to binge your way through Switched at Birth.
Switched at Birth
Number of Seasons: 4 (86 episodes)
Time Requirements: It’ll take just over 60 hours to catch up with the current backlog of episodes, but watching two episodes a day from now until the end of October will mean you’re caught up in time for the fourth season finale.
Where to Get Your Fix: Netflix, Hulu Plus
Best Character to Follow: The two girls switched at birth are the easy answer here, but while Marano (who played Luke’s daughter in the late seasons of Gilmore Girls) gives a great performance as artsy, frustrated Bay, the nod for strongest character goes to Daphne. Leclerc, a hard of hearing actress who was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease at age 20, plays Daphne with a deaf accent, and as the character navigating the most number of boundaries, she’s the most fascinating person on the show. Switched at Birth has at times saddled Daphne with some exhausting romantic plots. But her overall arc, from deaf high school student inadvertently drawn into a new family to a struggling college student attempting to become a doctor, is the backbone of the show’s subtle but important message.
Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:
Season 1: Episodes 23-29, “This Is the Color of My Dreams” — “The Trial” The only utter misstep of the entire series is the final stretch tacked onto the initial 22-episode season. It contains the worst main plot (the Kennish/Sorrento lawsuit against the hospital) and the worst subplot (Daphne hooking up with her boss at a restaurant). Considering the show goes to great lengths to take the initial shock of switched children and work it into the positive of having such a large, diverse family, it’s tough to sit through so much courtroom squabbling and hand-wringing over seeking compensation or an admission of guilt from the hospital. It’s best to skip right from the proper end of the first season—”Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time”—right to the de facto finale of “Street Noises Invade the House.”
Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:
Season 1: Episode 1, “This Is Not a Pipe” The pilot introduces both families and the inciting incident for their collision course: Bay discovering she has a different blood type from the rest of her family. An introduction is necessary both to get an initial feel for the characters and to see just how different the families are at the outset, since they grow significantly closer as they ride the roller coaster of Bay and Daphne’s high school careers.
Season 1: Episode 3, “Portrait of My Father” The core cast of the show is incredible—Moffett delivers such a caring, means-well but oblivious performance as John Kennish that it’s almost enough to forget how much of an ass he was as Joe McCoy on Friday Night Lights—but for the first television series to put deaf issues front and center, recurring performers don’t get any better than Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin. She plays Melody, the mother of Daphne’s best friend Emmett (who’s also Bay’s love interest, because this is a teen soap).
Season 1: Episode 10, “The Homecoming” Bay’s major arcs during the first half of Season 1 concern her desire to find her birth father Angelo, who abandoned Regina and Daphne when a blood test confirmed he wasn’t Daphne’s father, and her burgeoning romance with Emmett (Sean Berdy). Angelo’s appearance, and the revelation that Regina knew about the switch but said nothing years before Bay’s blood test, makes for a highly dramatic episode. But for all the shippers who have continued watching this show, what the initially anti-hearing Emmett does to demonstrate his feelings for Bay lays the groundwork for their on-and-off romance throughout the series.
Season 1: Episode 21, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” It’s easy to make a list of the most melodramatic moments on a show that relishes in designing painful disappointments and cathartic reunions. But sometimes it’s best just to watch everyone have a little fun. This episode, which centers on Bay and Daphne teaming up to film an ASL zombie movie for Emmett’s birthday, is exactly that. There are some minor dramatic moments in the B and C plots, but for the most part, it’s an intriguing look at some independent deaf cinema.
Season 1: Episode 30, “Street Noises Invade the House” The extra-long first season of Switched at Birth spanned 30 episodes over 16 months, but finally came to a conclusion with the end of the Kennish/Vasquez/Sorrento lawsuit against the hospital that switched Bay and Daphne. It’s the end of a rebellious streak for Bay that takes her penchant for street art and folds it back toward more professional endeavors. It’s also the end of Daphne’s stint at a restaurant and sort-of falling for her much older chef boss, as Angelo steps in to be the kind of protective father he never was after abandoning Regina. And it’s the start of even more questions when an unknown pregnant woman shows up asking for Angelo. In other words, it’s the perfect cornucopia of melodrama for a show that loves to turn up the music that will tug at heartstrings.
Season 2: Episode 9, “Uprising” This is without a doubt the centerpiece and masterwork of Switched at Birth: the first episode of American television broadcast entirely in American Sign Language with subtitles. It’s utterly fascinating, as the Carlton School For the Deaf faces an impending closure, and the students rise up to defend it. It draws attention to the Deaf President Now protests at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. in 1988, and has a handful of the best scenes ever depicted in the series. It’s Switched at Birth at its most fiercely political while also providing maximum educational context. This episode premiered a few weeks before the show received a Peabody Award, and no single installment better illustrates why it deserved that award.
Season 2: Episode 11, “Mother and Child Divided” Regina’s backslide into alcoholism is notably more difficult for Daphne to accept than Bay. Daphne saw it as a child—the disease is what led a neglectful Regina to not realize how serious Daphne’s meningitis was, leading to her deafness. And Bay, more willing to forgive a birth mother she’s only seen fall off the wagon once, clashes with Daphne over this. Adding to that bubbling turmoil is the return of Ty (Blair Redford), Bay’s ex-boyfriend from early on in the first season, after a few years serving in the military in Afghanistan, which opened the show up to comment on the lives of returning soldiers and the difficulties they face re-entering society.
Season 2: Episode 15, “Ecce Mono” When John suffers a heart attack after an argument with Regina, he has an extended dream while in the hospital. It’s a risky move for any show to give an entire episode over to a dream sequence, because it’s hard to make the wide-open possibilities actually mean something in the actual world of the show. But all of the changes, from Daphne’s bratty attitude to Kathryn’s philandering ways, highlight a more problematic family life without Regina. In John’s fantasy, taking Daphne away from Regina and getting a restraining order doesn’t mean that life would be perfect, and the realization of just how important her differing opinions are to the success of the family is the crux of the little morality play.
Season 3: Episode 1, “Drowning Girl” Proving that Breaking Bad’s Walter “Flynn” White Jr. wasn’t just a flash in the pan, RJ Mitte has a recurring role throughout the third season as Campbell, a wheelchair-bound former snowboarder who charms Daphne during her community service at a health clinic.
Season 3: Episode 16, “The Image Disappears” Angelo Sorrento was initially useful to reflect the differences between his flighty nature and John Kennish’s dependability. But as he became a more permanent fixture in Bay, Daphne, and especially Regina’s life, he offered a fuller character. Regina and Kathryn are best when their divergent approaches to parenting and life make them more open-minded. And Angelo’s influence gradually proved the same thing, whether he was encouraging Bay’s art or acting on questionable authority as an overprotective father to Daphne in crisis. But his ultimate fate, revealed in this episode, has significant emotional consequences for his birth and adoptive daughters as they cope with his legacy.
Season 3: Episode 22, “Yuletide Fortune Tellers” A second fantasy episode, this time in the form of a Christmas special where a wish grants Bay and Daphne a glimpse at the lives they could have had if they hadn’t been switched. Instead of teaching John that he’s glad to have Regina in his life as a friend and Bay’s birth mother, it’s more about showing Bay and Daphne how thankful they are to have grown up for so long with their respective mothers. It’s a bit of unbelievable magic, but it’s much better than other treacly specials built around the same kind of familial appreciation.
Season 4: Episode 6, “Black and Gray” Few shows have dared to tackle the recent rise of the cultural conversation surrounding rape on college campuses. Switched at Birth isn’t equipped for the kind of damning reporting of The Hunting Ground, but its two-part examination of this issue, which concerns a night of heavy drinking and a hookup between Bay and Tank (Max Adler, or Dave Karofsky from Glee) elucidates the issue for an audience that otherwise might never hear about or discuss it. No, two hours of ABC Family television will not ever solve a complex social issue, just like Degrassi never fully grasped any of the issues it put on screen. But the goal is to start a conversation, and “Black and Gray” certainly did.
Why You Should Binge:
At the speed of a binge-watch, it’s easier to skip over the rough patches, like Daphne’s ill-fated romance with a chef, or a politically devious barista, or John’s political campaign, or Regina’s constant back-and-forth over her feelings about Angelo. That makes it far easier to appreciate what the show does well: telling familiar family stories through characters rarely seen on television in a context where they’re simply regular cast members and not special props.
Best Scene—Daphne Sets Off the House Alarm
Carrie Raisler wrote about nearly every episode of Switched at Birth through the end of the third season at The A.V. Club, but her review of “Uprising” remains the definitive critical appreciation of the show. There are so many scenes from other episodes that would better highlight Bay’s romance with Emmett or Daphne’s various flings or John and Kathryn’s marriage or Regina’s relationship with her mother Adriana (played by Jane the Virgin’s Ivonne Coll) or any of Bay and Daphne’s deaf friends who play major parts in the overall arc of the show. But instead of a moment of melodrama, the most important scenes in Switched at Birth are the ones that seem ordinary or quotidian but have larger implications for the way deaf people must interact with the rest of the world. The nondescript moment when Daphne enters the Kennish house in “Uprising” and accidentally sets off the house alarm, leading to a scene of frantic disorientation, is a perfect example of that feeling. Switched at Birth has the power to put hearing viewers in the shoes of someone different, and that is its greatest strength.
There have been many more shows breaking away from the standard white families depicted in family sitcoms and melodramas, from Switched at Birth and Empire to Blackish and Fresh Off the Boat. Their continued critical and populist success will hopefully lead to networks getting more amenable to shows that employ a tried-and-true genre stories while examining characters who aren’t as well-represented in the television landscape.
If You Liked Switched at Birth You’ll Love:
Gilmore Girls, The Fosters, and Degrassi: The Next Generation.
Visit link –