ABC Family’s new drama Switched at Birth premiered last night. It’s the story of Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano, Gilmore Girls, The Young and the Restless), who never feels like she fits in with her family. When a blood test at school points to her parents not being biologically related to her, Bay asks for DNA testing. The hospital reveals Bay was switched at birth with another girl, Daphne (Katie Leclerc, Flying By), who is deaf, and being raised by a single mother, Regina (Constance Marie, George Lopez). Bay’s parents, John (D.W. Moffett, Friday Night Lights) and Kristen (Lea Thompson, Back to the Future, Caroline in the City) want to give Daphne the financial opportunities she missed out on, offending Regina. Bay still feels left out by both families, and has no desire to let Daphne into her life. Until she realizes Daphne is the only one who might understand what she is going through.
Most of ABC Family’s television shows aren’t very watchable unless you are a preteen or teenage girl. However, this one has some real potential. For one, the cast is made up of people who can actually act very well, something many series on the network don’t have. (Looking at you, The Secret Life of the American Teenager!) For another, while the hook is a rare happenstance, the reactions and emotions involved are portrayed authentically and tug at the heartstrings. This kind of secret exposed is never an easy thing to deal with. The real test is how long Switched at Birth can mine the complexities involved, and what kind of show it will be afterwards. The immediate plot is surely not good for a many years run.
Bay is an angry girl, one who doesn’t feel at ease in any situation. But she is also a vulnerable one. While she pushes for the DNA testing because she claims she doesn’t fit in, she later breaks down to her brother, admitting she never really believes Kristen and John are not her parents. She is like any teenager, wishing she didn’t get the mother and father she has, but loving them all the while, and expecting fantasies of coming from different stock to be proven wrong. It’s a turning point for Bay, that scene, and once she is able to talk to someone, she begins to accept the situation. Which means she is much later to the party than the rest of the characters, even though she instigated it.
John, Kristen, and their son, Toby (Lucas Grabeel, High School Musical, Smallville), are all supportive of both Daphne and Bay. It’s tough, as the parents have to tell Bay she will always be their daughter, of course, but they also want to help Daphne, who has not had the advantages their money could have given her. They struggle with being all things to both girls. Daphne wants to please them, and so accepts some of their help. Bay, on the other hand, continues her teenage rebellion she is already exhibiting when the series begins, perhaps even cranking it up a notch. Toby has it a little easier than John and Kristen, as he just has to be there for his sisters, biological and the one he is raised with, and both already appreciate him.
Now the real question is, how will Toby handle all the attention being heaped on the girls for a long time to come?
But for all the Kennishs do, Daphne already has a family. Regina works very hard to take care of and provide for Daphne. She makes sure Daphne attends a deaf school, and gets any assistance she may need. She has every right to be offended when John and Kristen try to move in. While they may have Daphne’s best interests at heart, it is arrogant of them to think their money makes them wiser or better for Daphne. Regina provides love, and Daphne acknowledges that, letting her mother know she will never be replaced.
Striking a balance is going to be hard, made no easier by the fact that Regina and Daphne now live in the Kennishs’ guest house. Kristen and John offer the place with no strings attached, and vow to stay out of the way, but that seems unlikely, given how much they butt in in just the first episode. Regina knows it won’t be easy, but accepts the offer because it’s what is right for Daphne. This is yet another example of the type of sacrifices Regina is willing to make for her daughter. It cannot be easy for her to swallow her pride in this instance.
Daphne is the glue that begins binding both families. While Bay is off getting into trouble and being angry, Daphne is getting to know her new relatives, as well as making sure her mother is OK. She is a sweet, understanding child.
How much of personality is nature versus nurture? It’s an obvious question to ask in Switched at Birth. Daphne exhibits Regina’s genuine caring and love, while Bay has Regina’s artistic ability. Less obvious is how the girls relate to the Kennishs, but that may be because the Kennishs tend to act more ‘proper,’ which means, in this instance, more formal. It’s just the way they live, though it does support stereotypes. Who knows how Daphne and Bay might be different if they grew up in different households? It’s a question sure to pop up again and again, especially in this first season.
And as Bay asks at the end of “This Is Not a Pipe,” who is her father?
Kudos goes to whoever came up with the title of this episode. “This Is Not a Pipe” is an artistic reference to René François Ghislain Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, which looks like a pipe, but as Margritte says, it is merely an image of a pipe. This episode, and the series at large, will be concerned with what things actually are, versus what they seem to be. It’s a valid question, given the nature versus nurture debate, and one that will be interesting to explore.
Of course, this being a drama series, there are other elements besides the family. Daphne has a best friend named Emmett (Sean Berdy), who will keep her tethered to the deaf community. While Toby and Emmett do not get off on the right foot, this is because Toby, like his parents, does not understand the deaf community at all. He has not been exposed to their world before. Daphne is understanding, and through her, hopefully Emmett will be more accepting, as Toby is really trying, and any insult he causes is not intentional. And Emmett is just one, albeit the most visible one, of non-family members that will be involved in the show.
Switched at Birth airs at 9 p.m. ET on ABC Family.