Switched at Birth Was One of the Last Teen Dramas of a Bygone Age

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<i>Switched at Birth</i> Was One of the Last Teen Dramas of a Bygone Age

When I sat down to write about the series finale of Switched at Birth, I made a list of all the issues the show has tackled over the years: child abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, cyber bullying, alcoholism, the death of a parent, socioeconomic disparity, treatment of same sex couples in schools, steroid use, deafness and deaf culture, having a child with special needs, mental health, and drug use. And that’s just what I can remember off the top of my head.

Premiering in June 2011, the series followed Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) and Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc) who, when they are 15 years old, realize they were switched at the hospital when they were born (has there ever been a more literal TV title?). Bay, who’s been raised in wealth and privilege by Katherine (Lea Thompson) and former pro baseball player John (D.W. Moffet), is actually the daughter of Regina (Constance Marie), a recovering alcoholic who struggles to make ends meet in East Riverside, a much less affluent part of Kansas City. Daphne, who lost her hearing at the age of three after a bout with meningitis, realized she inherited her love of cooking from Katherine and her sports acumen from John. Bay took after Regina’s artistic talent.

That’s a heavy premise to laden a TV series with, but creator and executive producer Lizzy Weiss deftly wove social issues with the stuff that makes teen soaps tick. Bay had a grand romance with Emmett (Sean Berdy), a motorcycle-loving quasi-bad boy. Daphne and Bay were always getting into some sort of trouble, whether it was blackmailing a senator, destroying public property or stealing prescription medication. Their older brother, Toby (Luca Grabeel), was not without drama either. (He had a penchant for getting married.)

As they redefined their family configuration, Switched at Birth saw the girls graduate from high school and start their post-high school life: Daphne became a pre-med student at the University of Missouri Kansas City (UMKC) and Bay turned her love of art into a career, eventually landing on being a tattoo artist.

In a rarity for shows aimed at teens, the series also gave equal weight to the adults, making them fully realized characters—not just people for the kids to roll their eyes at. Regina had multiple romances, reunited with Bay’s father, Angelo (Giles Marini), and tried various careers. Katherine and John had a loving marriage, but one in which they argued over important issues and dealt with difficult decisions together. They even still had sex! Katherine became a famous author and went on to lead the Athletic Department at UMKC—because, why not?—while John sold his car wash business and became the baseball coach at UMKC—because, again, why not?

The ensemble, most of whom learned American Sign Language (ASL) when they were cast, was phenomenal. Both Marano and Leclerc never made their story lines feel too much like a soap opera. Academy Award-winner Marlee Matlin recurred as Melody, Regina’s best friend and Emmett’s mom, raising every scene she appeared in to the next level. (A special shout-out to Ryan Lane, who recurred as Bay’s boyfriend, Travis, and made me fall a little bit more in love with him every time he was on the screen.)

Switched at Birth seamlessly integrated American Sign Language (ASL) into the series. And you couldn’t casually watch the show because, with a good portion of the key characters speaking exclusively in ASL, you had to read the subtitles to know what was going on. In a TV first, a Season Two episode, “Uprising” was entirely in ASL. It was the culmination of a story arc that found students trying to keep their school for the deaf open.

The series often presented issues without easy or pat answers. In one of the drama’s more controversial narratives, Bay’s ex-boyfriend, Tank (Max Adler), has sex with an extremely intoxicated Bay. Tank claims he didn’t know Bay didn’t want to sleep with him. Bay thinks there’s no way he could not have known—she may not have said “no,” but she never said “yes.” But Tank is never portrayed as a cruel villain, and the show positioned its audience to have honest discussions about sexual assault and consent. You never felt like you were being lectured or told how to feel.

Switched at Birth kicked off its final season with a Black Lives Matter-inspired plot. When students leave cotton balls in front of the Black Student Union, they’re reprimanded, but not expelled, and Daphne’s friend, Iris (Sharon Pierre-Louis), stages a hunger strike as a protest. Although this time the series did offer a fairly pat resolution—the college administration eventually gives in to the students’ demands—the show likely exposed many viewers to a topic they knew very little about. It may have been too earnest, but it wasn’t tone deaf (ahem, Pepsi).

As you might be able to tell from all of the above, Switched at Birth was one of the few shows of its kind left on TV, the other being its network sibling, The Fosters. Once ABC Family became Freeform and leaned into its Pretty Little Liars line-up, it was clear that Switched at Birth was not the direction executives had decided to pursue: Famous in Love, which premieres next Tuesday in Switched at Birth’s time slot, follows a college student (Bella Thorne) as she becomes famous and (you guessed it) falls in love. The ads alone might make you blush.

Switched at Birth was, rather, from the bygone TV era of Everwood and Gilmore Girls—an entertaining, sincere, relatable series that a teen could watch with her parents and grandparents. The kids had sex, but the show wasn’t hypersexualized (looking at you Riverdale). They weren’t trying to solve a mystery (13 Reasons Why) or living among the undead (Vampire Diaries). They were also more mature than their counterparts on the tween shows that permeate the Disney Channel, who are prone to histrionics and exaggerated hijinks (Liv and Mddie, K. C. Undercover). Bay and Daphne were, for the most part, typical teenagers. Sure, Switched at Birth may have veered into the sappy, occasionally, but the protagonists’ problems, although heightened, were always relevant.

In last night’s series finale, “Long Live Love,” the series neatly wrapped up most of its lingering story lines. Daphne defiantly decides to continue to pursue a medical career even after a renowned surgeon tells her deaf people can’t be doctors. Bay (finally!) choses herself, and decides to focus on her work as a tattoo artist, rather than follow her boyfriend, Travis, to Japan. There was a nice nod to Bay and Emmett, as a first love story. We all have them. We all probably think of them wistfully, every so often. But most of us don’t marry our high school boyfriends or our first loves, and it’s nice when a TV series acknowledges that. Toby, always a bit of a wanderer, realizes what he wants to do with his life. Regina moves out of the guesthouse, gets her boyfriend to turn himself in (long story), and decides to raise his son. Travis and Emmett make up and are off to Japan together. Melody will continue to take in students who need her help and support. You got the feeling, watching the finale, that life in all its ups and downs would go on for the Kennish and Vasquez families.

But who will fill the void left by their departure?

Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .