In Another Life

As a teenager I loved lots of different types of television shows, including shows that were targeted at my age group.  As I have gotten older, I have re-watched these shows as an adult, and some have aged better than others.   My So-Called Life, for example, holds up to my (more) mature viewing eye. Yes, I identify with the parents a bit more than the first go round, but I am proud of my younger self for having good taste.  The show has drama and perhaps even heightened drama, but it never veered into melodrama.  Other shows I loved back then, say Beverly Hills 90210, are enjoyable purely on a nostalgic level. I can see why I liked to watch it, but there’s not much there for me anymore. The acting isn’t great and the story lines aren’t that plausible (ahem, Donna Martin graduates). I guess I can say I was fully part of the 90s zeitgeist, but that’s about it.

Despite this, and perhaps the pervading television wisdom, shows primarily about teenagers, can be and are good. Switched at Birth, which is in its second season, is a show somewhere in the middle between My So-Called Life and Beverly Hills, 90210.  It’s a show with a ridiculous sounding name (my vote for a better name is the title of this post), a fairly melodramatic premise, that is actually executed rather well. So, I’m officially going to come out of the Switched at Birth closet, and say, it makes pretty good television. And I will tell you while if you just click below! You know you want to…

Let’s get the painful stuff out-of-the-way: yes, the show is about two girls (Daphne and Bay) who were switched at birth. Yes, it airs on ABC Family (which is sort of like the WB, with a bad name). Yes, sometimes the writing drops anvil sized hints about where it is going and that tends to be down the ‘heightened drama’ path. Yes the show is supposed to take place in Kansas City, but it clear the show thinks Kansas City has California-type weather. But, I promise if you look past all of this, you will get an interesting look at class, identity, and culture.  Through some plot conveniences Daphne, her mother Regina, and grandmother, Adrianna are now living in the guest house on the same property with Bay,  Bay’s parents John and Katherine, and Bay’s brother Toby. Rounding out the cast are Emmett, Daphne’s best friend (who is also Deaf)/Bay’s current boyfriend, and Melody, Emmett’s mother.

Sounds like a mess, yet it’s really not. The first indication that the show was perhaps going to be better than average is that within the basic switch story, you have two interesting leads. Bay, who has grown up in a very wealthy family is the artist with scathing wit and a pension for street art. Daphne, raised by a half-Puerto Rican single mother, is smart and independent, and oh, also deaf. The second indication that the show was might be good, is the fact that Deaf Culture figures prominently in the storyline; there are actual deaf/Deaf characters that sign to each other and that conversation is displayed using subtitles. The third indication that the show was on to something is that it whilst it does indulge in melodramatic tendencies, the show has avoided some key tropes of lesser shows. The fourth indication, well, they managed to pull in some well-known actors, Lea Thompson, Constance Marie, D.W. Moffet, Marlee Matlin, for the adults, and Lucas Grabeel (of HSM fame) and Vanessa Marano (previously of Dexter) and find some new ones as well in Katie LeClerc and Sean Berdy.

Yeah, yeah, I hear you saying. I need to see some examples to believe it. Fair enough. Herein lies your examples:
Bay’s sarcasm: upon hearing her parents say nothing has changed: “I just found out my middle name is Paloma, I’d probably be a vegetarian, and I am supposed to have grown up in [the bad part of town] the daughter of a half-Puerto Rican single mother hairdresser, but aside from that nothing has changed.”
Daphne’s independence: When her birth parents (the rich ones) try to get her to leave her deaf school and come to the fancy private school, she decides the best thing for her is to stay at her own school
Deaf Culture: A recent conversation between Emmett and his mother, done in sign with only ambient noise, talks a great deal about deaf education, the merit of signing or speaking, and what it means for a deaf kid to be dating a hearing kid.
Avoiding tropes: After a first season that saw the girls go through their share of boys, it has landed on a sort of triangle, with Bay and Emmett dating, and Daphne suddenly deciding she wants to date Emmett. Yet, the show has, so far, avoided typical things. Emmett has clearly chosen Bay, and the triangle is more about how has Daphne’s and Emmett’s friendship been affected by his relationship with Bay.

Beyond the Deaf Culture, which is probably the most interesting aspect, it also looks at what it means to be family. Who makes decisions for which child, what does money ‘buy,’ how do they all get along. Bay and Daphne have an interesting relationship, where they are often at odds with each other, and yet there are glimpses that show how much they could help each other. They mark their territory even while willingly and knowingly veer into the other’s.  Regina and Katherine tend to mirror this, with one-step forward in becoming friends, and two-steps back.

It might not win awards; there are moments in each episode where I really have to let go of some logic. The writers haven’t figured out what to do with the brother Toby yet.  This season is moving at a slower pace than last, which is giving it time to focus more on some storylines, I’m not crazy about, such as the as yet revealed potential shady nature of Bay’s bio father and a lawsuit relating to the switch that is dragging on and on. Still, there is enough of the good stuff that I keep coming back.

I urge you to swallow your pride, turn on ABC Family, and check it out. The first season is on Netflix for American’s, and I am sure it can be found for those outside of real ameruicah(TM). Because while it is no My So-Called Life, it’s no Beverly Hills, 90210 either.
A look from the season premiere:

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