I was feeling sick a couple weekends ago, so I stayed in and decided to put my Roku to work. Monica had been recommending Switched at Birth for awhile now, and since it popped up at the top of my Netflix recommendations, I decided to give it a try.
If you know me, you already know I'm generally down for an ABC Family (now, Freeform) show. After all, the network has its surprising gems that you might not expect (Bunheads, anyone?).
The show reminds me a lot of Parenthood, which is another drama that was equally as captivating. What both shows also have, that intrigues me, are characters you both root for and hate throughout the series. There are some characters and storylines that are ripe for criticism, and often times I found myself wanting to throw something at the television when a character was being pretentious or judgmental or naive. If you were to read through my text updates to Monica while I was watching Switched at Birth, you'll see the constant flip-flopping I feel over individuals and relationships and storylines.
But isn't that what makes a good show? Investment in the characters? At least, for me it does. (And trust me: I have a lot of opinions right now about every character, including the characters that I'm still sitting here wondering, "Where the hell did they go?!" -- and if you watch the show and care to rant with me, you know where to find me.)
1. The thing about Switched at Birth is that it's not just a show you can have on in the background for noise. You have to actively pay attention because at least half of every episode (at least in the first two seasons) is almost completely silent because the characters rely solely on ASL to communicate. You have to read subtitles, so looking away or staring at your phone isn't an option while you're watching the show.
And that's a good thing, because what I began to notice is how much facial expressions really convey, and how important it is to have the right music cues. The kind of actor that can draw you in is the kind who can tell a whole story with just his/her eyes. When you can't use your voice to speak, that becomes essential (there's even a whole episode down entirely in ASL -- a first in television history); and when you are using your voice, but acting opposite those who can't, you have to step up your game too -- and that's what makes the storytelling on Switched at Birth so unique and incredible. The way the show has normalized deaf culture has also made me realize in my own work how important it is to be inclusive of this particular community. (It's no wonder the show won a Peabody.)
2. The show takes on campus sexual assault in season four in a way that I don't think I've ever seen on television or film. Every angle of how complicated it is to go through an experience like that, and then the aftermath (reporting it, or having someone report it for you; the backlash; the gossip; the broken friendships and relationships; the guilt) -- as someone who's gone through it and who's seen others gone through it, up close and too personally, it's tough to get that right in fiction without coming off like an after-school special. How Switched at Birth addresses it all is nothing short of incredible.
What's also refreshing about the show's take is how it doesn't treat the topic as an isolated storyline. What happened in the episode doesn't stay within the pages of that script. It affects the characters through the rest of the season -- not in a way that looms over every interaction, but it's a part of their lives. There's one moment in the season where one character says to the other that perhaps what happened will never go away and it will never be something that can be forgiven or gotten over; it's just something that has to be lived with. That's powerful. That's truth. In a society where we often want to reason pain away or justify our responses to traumatic situations, it's refreshing to hear that we don't have to have it all figured out immediately.
3. Vanessa Marano has a Presence -- with a capital 'P' -- on screen. Even when Bay is being unreasonable or unjustifiably bitter, I don't think I ever found myself dismissing her character at all. She plays the role with depth, when Bay could easily be a stereotypical pseudo-emo artist. In fact, Vanessa Marano is so good in this role that I've completely forgiven the Gilmore Girls character of April Nardini -- and that's saying a lot considering how much I hated that character.
Season five of Switched at Birth doesn't begin until April, so you've all got time to catch up on the 93 episodes on Netflix now.