If there's anything I'm a sucker for, it's a Stealth Show -- a program with subversive elements hidden in plain sight.
What could be more mainstream than an teen soap on ABC Family? "Switched at Birth," which returns at 8 p.m. ET on Monday, Sept. 3, has the requisite number of love triangles, secrets and wildly attractive humans. Given that it's about the families of two headstrong high schoolers who find out that the title switcheroo happened when their daughters were a few hours old, there's no stinting on the Drama with a capital D.
But the soap, which debuted about a year ago, also cannily explores subjects that most other shows wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. "Switched" handily proves that Latino-Anglo culture clashes, deaf-hearing culture clashes and class issues are every bit as able to drive stories as young love gone awry, boyfriend stealing and what happened at prom.
The refreshing "Switched at Birth" is part of a wave of stealth shows that demonstrate just how far we've come from the days when a musty array of noble, suffering characters dominated the quest for on-screen diversity. No disrespect to the Let's Teach a Lesson era of TV -- we did learn a few things -- but these days, there's much less self-consciousness about how characters are defined and delineated. Though of course more progress would be welcome, it's heartening to note that characters who are not straight, who are not white, who deal with physical challenges and who have spectrum disorders aren't one-dimensional examples who dwell on the fringes of the action -- they're right at the heart of a clutch of shows that aspire to or have acheived mainstream success.
"Will & Grace" undoubtedly moved the dial on issues of tolerance, but many shows that are walking through the door it helped open are taking much more laid-back approaches. The superheroine at the heart of "Lost Girl" doesn't feel conflicted about being bisexual or being heroic; she has problems, but she embraces her sexually-charged powers and she has a supportive best friend (a relationship that is the stealthy heart of the Syfy show). "The L.A. Complex" has a story line about an African-American rapper who's gay, and teenage lesbian Emily on ABC Family's "Pretty Little Liars" is one of the most popular characters on that show. "Happy Endings," in contrast to many broadcast network comedies, presents a gay man who is gleefully slothful and unemployed.
My favorite character on "Alphas" is an autistic young man named Gary, who's has a strong arc this season about his grief over a dead friend (who was severely autistic) and his quest for greater autonomy and independence. And among "The Good Wife's" most delightful supporting characters are a man who exploits his neurological disease to win over juries and a woman who flaunts her mother-of-toddlers status to throw everyone else off their A games. These characters aren't there to teach anyone anything; they have their own agendas and personalities, and they don't exit when they've served their purpose (or when sweeps are over).
What's cool is that there is a rising generation of television creators who are less interested in stereotypes than in using difference to fuel interesting character dilemmas and choices. A show like "Girls" is subversive too -- most programs still aren't willing to put the word "abortion" in a script -- but you expect that kind of edginess from HBO. What you don't expect from an ABC Family show is a matter-of-fact approach to a subculture that makes it both cinematically compelling and as intriguing as the biker clubs on "Sons of Anarchy."
In Monday's episode of "Switched at Birth," Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc) interviews for a junior cooking position at a restaurant, and she's clearly got the right skills for the job, but the well-meaning manager is taken aback when Daphne reveals that she's deaf (not surprisingly, the manager begins speaking much more loudly). Some shows would have stopped there, but not the dogged "Switched at Birth," which shows Daphne finally landing a job at a different fancy restaurant.
After a couple of kitchen accidents, the chef learns that Daphne is deaf, and he delivers an angry speech about how unsafe she's making the workplace for everyone else. He demotes her to dishwasher, and though he comes off as arrogant jerk, he's no more arrogant than any other would-be culinary star. He's not depicted as a mustache-twirling villain, nor is he doing anything illegal in his treatment of Daphne, as it turns out.
Putting Daphne in a situation where she has to deal with people like that -- who are both jackasses about her deafness and jackasses in general -- doesn't just make for good drama; the entire scenario has an illicit whiff of "What just happened!?" People aren't supposed to act like that on TV, especially not when an eager, innocent, deaf young woman is involved. But the roadblocks in Daphne's life make for stories that don't feel tired and overly familiar, and for the show to act any differently about what she faces would make it both boring and dumb.
But it's neither; it is, like many of the shows mentioned here, refreshingly matter-of-fact about the lives of all its characters, whatever challenges they face. And over the course of "Switched's" first season, I've come to look forward to scenes in which two deaf characters talk to each other via American Sign Language. These scenes are generally silent and subtitled, and even if the characters are in the middle of a fight, the quiet is strangely peaceful. As New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum said in an email conversation about the show, "It's practically avant-garde for television, despite the conventional teen-soap look of the show." Exactly.
Allowing deaf characters to talk to each other directly -- without a hearing person or a translator present -- is a savvy strategy that allows the show to dig deeper into deaf culture and also to treat deaf characters as it would anyone else. Because you follow Daphne and her friends into their world, they become more well-rounded and interesting than they'd be if they were tokens trotted out to educate and enlighten. On top of that, deaf culture has rituals, rules and beliefs that are just plain interesting, and offer more fertile storytelling territory than the worlds of, say, cops, doctors, socialites and lawyers.
The good news is, the deaf characters can be jackasses too. Earlier in the season, switchee Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) fell in love with Daphne's hot, motorcycle-riding best friend, Emmett; his deafness wasn't as much of an obstacle in their relationship as various family traumas and the fact that he cheated on her. (As you can see in the exclusive clip on this post, after a summer-long break, things are still rocky between Bay and Emmett when the show returns for Season 1.5).
There's also drama driven by the visa and legal issues of Bay's biological father (an Italian played by Gilles Marini), and by clashes between the Kennish parents (D.W. Moffett and Lea Thompson) and Daphne's financially strapped mom, Regina (Constance Marie). As "Switched at Birth" has amped up the relationship angst that is the lifeblood of any soap, it feels as though it's focused less on Regina's (and Bay's) Latina ancestry; once Regina and Daphne moved into the luxurious Kennish mansion, the show began to spend more time on the wealthy side of town. But "Switched" is still willing to engage in honest discussions about class, culture, money and differing parenting styles, which are often treated as the third rails of American culture: Touch them at your peril.
"Switched at Birth" is not "Breaking Bad"; as I said, its main goal is to hit all the targets that a teen soap should. It does those things quite capably, and thanks to a solid younger cast and some especially fine work by Moffett and Thompson, the adult story lines are reasonably compelling as well. And if you're thinking the premise -- babies switched at birth! One went deaf! -- is a stretch, well, is it?
For the past decade or two, werewolves, vampires and ghosts have often featured in the TV vehicles that have helped young characters explore where they fit in the big, scary world. All props to shows like "Buffy" and "Supernatural," but "Switched's" contrivances pale in comparison to those used by many supernaturally flavored dramas. And if this well-acted ABC family drama occasionally skates into overly superficial territory, it's understandable.
After all, it takes a fairly heavy idea as its premise: You might meet someone who isn't like you, and even with the best of intentions, you might not really hear them.
Check out an exclusive sneak peek at the new episode of "Switched at Birth" below: