An inherently marketable premise, ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth” be comes the formula for a surprisingly compelling drama, one that any number of networks might have found a place for on their schedule. Two families discover their teenage daughters were you-know-what as infants, creating an unlikely relationship between the deaf daughter of a single mom and the privileged child of a suburban couple. For once, a show that hinges on teen petulance has a good excuse for it, forcing both the kids and parents to contemplate the very different lives they might have led.
Events are quickly set in motion when the willful Bay (“Gilmore Girls'” Vanessa Marano) learns she has a rare blood type and prods her mom (Lea Thompson) and dad (D.W. Moffett) — a retired baseball player — to take a DNA test. They’re all shocked to discover she isn’t theirs, and track down Daphne (Katie Leclerc), who was mistakenly given to the financially strapped hairdresser Regina (Constance Marie) and lives in a lousy neighborhood.
The discovery of the mix-up and the reunion yield plenty of awkward moments, with Thompson’s character insisting to Bay — upset about the attention her folks are paying to Daphne — that despite the revelation, “Nothing’s changed.”
As niftily constructed by creator Lizzy Weiss, though, “Switched” inevitably pushes its characters into considering how their lives might have been different, even as they seek to accommodate the sudden introduction of “family” they didn’t know they had. There’s also an intriguing nature/nurture aspect — what the kids inherited, vs. what they were taught — that bodes well once you get past the broad strokes associated with setting everything up in an hour.
A second episode illustrates the tension between the parents — Daphne’s mom snaps that Bay’s folks are “arrogant and entitled” — and the evolving relationships among the teens. On a more cautionary note, that hour highlights the danger of letting these interactions become overly petulant and slide into melodrama. (Marlee Matlin, in neither of the previewed hours, will have a recurring role down the road.)
Perhaps foremost, “Switched at Birth” creates solid roles for both generations (Thompson’s character thus far exhibits the least dimension), which isn’t often the case in the teen/tween drama-verse, where it’s not uncommon for anybody over 30 to sound like Charlie Brown’s parents.
In the second hour, Bay muses that this situation is “never gonna stop being weird,” and given the need to create drama, the answer is surely not. Yet two hours in, anyway, ABC Family has another bright and bouncy addition to the family — one that with proper care and feeding looks born to run for a good long time.