Last night on ABC Family, a little revolution happened on the screen. Fans of the TV show Switched at Birth knew it was going to happen. Some people looked forward to it. Others thought they were asking too much of their audience.
Except for a few spoken words at the beginning and end, the spring finale of Switched at Birth, titled “Uprising,” was in American Sign Language (ASL). It is the first time in history a TV show has done that.
Whenever TV shows created to entertain try to advocate a serious message, there’s a risk the effort will come off like an after school special or “A Very Special Episode of Blossom.”
Switched at Birth has taken a different approach right from the start. The show is about two families who learn that their teenage daughters had been switched as babies in the hospital. Daphne (Katie Leclerc), was raised by a single Mexican-American mom (Constance Marie) struggling to get by. Bay (Vanessa Marano) was raised by a wealthy caucasian family with all the advantages a kid could want or need. Bay is an artist. Daphne is a talented cook. Daphne is also deaf.
The thing that makes Switched at Birth so unique is the deaf stuff isn’t sugar coated or simplified for the sake of its hearing audience. There are long scenes where actors communicate in sign language, and the speakers on your television go completely silent. Subtitles are in place for those of us who don’t know ASL.
It’s a compelling show that tells interesting stories in the teen soap opera genre. It’s unique in that it has a TON of heart. I’m a guy who is is totally okay with his emotional side, and I cry at least one time per episode.
When producers announced the all ASL episode, I groaned.
As a fan, I thought they were asking too much. Isn’t it enough that as a hearing person, I watch Switched at Birth and love it? I get what they’re doing, and support it. It’s one of my favorite TV shows. Isn’t subjecting a mostly hearing audience to an hour of sign language a little pushy and indulgent?
Ummm … yeah. I was being a jerk.
Good art often yanks us outside of a comfort zone.
Marlee Matlin plays the guidance counselor at Carlton, a school for deaf kids. The school board facing budget cutbacks has voted to close Carlton and to mainstream the deaf kids into schools with hearing kids. There’s a scene in the episode where Marlee is talking with the deaf students and they’re all discussing their frustration. Marlee’s character signs, “Until hearing people walk a day in our shoes, they will never get it. Never.”
There’s a sense that that is exactly the artistic point of the spring finale of Switched at Birth. They want us to get a sense of the confusion a deaf person experiences when trying to navigate life in a hearing dominated culture.
In one scene, Daphne texts Bay to see if she’s awake. She wants to talk to Bay after she discovers her long-time sober mom passed out drunk. Bay texts back for Daphne to meet her in the kitchen. Daphne comes in the house, and we see her birth dad running in, then the birth mom, then the brother and Bay. They’re jumping around and making motions and it’s as confusing for the viewer as it is for Daphne. We find out along with Daphne, she’d set off the burglar alarm when she came into the house.
In regular episodes of Switched at Birth, the sign language and subtitles are slow enough for hearing viewer to keep up. In this episode, hearing viewers get no mercy.
The deaf kids are communicating to each other rapidly, and it’s hard to keep up. It’s easy to miss parts of the conversation because they aren’t thinking about our need to understand it. Maybe it’s not walking a day in their shoes, but they made the point in a powerful way.
The students of Carlton decide they’re going to take control of the school and occupy it until the school board reverses its decision to close it. They hatch a plan, and during a sign language performance of Romeo and Juliette, they execute the plan.
Students living in a social media world do what we all do now. They start tweeting and sharing pictures. Word starts to spread through Twitter using the hashtag, #TakeBackCarlton. People from around the country start encouraging the Carlton protest, both on the show and in real life on the real Twitter.
Some of the students want to take the unsupervised opportunity to party. Daphne takes control and tells her peers they aren’t going to be taken seriously unless they take themselves seriously. A couple students get upset, call Daphne a dictator and decide to leave. The rest stay.
This was the Spring Finale for Switched at Birth. The show will go on hiatus for a few months because that’s how ABC Family does things. We’re left not knowing if the protest will succeed or fail, and emotionally that seems about right.**
The effort to keep “Uprising” mostly in ASL wasn’t without flaws.
The Daphne character has had surgery to restore some of her hearing with the help of a hearing aid. I had to let that go when she set off the burglar alarm and didn’t know it.*
The deaf kids on Switched at Birth rarely make verbal sounds when communicating with each other, but their hearing and hard of hearing friends always do. It seemed a little artificial for the hearing kids to not verbalize all when communicating in the middle of the episode, especially during an emotional confrontation between Bay and Daphne.
I imagine the decision to use music throughout the episode was a difficult one. I think it was the right choice because hearing viewers may not have connected emotionally without it. I’m going to watch again with the sound off to see if it’s more or less powerful.
If you’ve never seen another episode of Switched at Birth, the first half of the spring finale is a compelling hour of entertaining television. You can watch it online on Hulu or ABC Family, or using the ABC Family App. I didn’t think having the whole episode in sign language would work. I was wrong.
*UPDATE: Although cochlear implants were discussed for the Daphne character in the first episode, the character did not have the surgery. Her hearing aid only allows her to hear ambient noise and she wasn’t wearing them when she entered the house and set off the alarm.
**This episode was the first half of the Switched at Birth spring finale. The second half will be broadcast next Monday, so we don’t have to wait to find out if the Carlton protest was successful or not.