On the fifth anniversary of 'Switched at Birth's' series finale, the cast and creator reflect on their groundbreaking series.
When television producer Lizzy Weiss was pregnant with her second child, she heard a podcast about two women who were in their 50s when they discovered they had been sent home with the wrong family when they were born.
"I think because I was pregnant and had a toddler, it hit me in a very raw and panicky way," Weiss tells Metacritic. "And instantly I thought, 'Oh what if they were teenagers when they found out?' That's when your identity is already so in flux. You're always feeling like, 'Do I belong? Am I different from everyone else?'"
That unnerving moment became the premise of Weiss' five-season series Switched at Birth, a drama about two Kansas families who discover that their now teenage daughters were, as the title suggests, switched at birth. The series followes Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc) a basketball loving teen who became deaf at the age of 3 after a bout of meningitis and Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano), a slightly rebellious adolescent with an artistic streak. Daphne was being raised by single mother Regina (Constance Marie) while Bay lived in a wealthy suburb with her former baseball player father John (D.W. Moffet), stay-at-home mom Kathryn (Lea Thompson), and older brother Toby (Lucas Grabeel). But had they not been switched, their lives would have been reversed, and questions even arise in the series about whether Daphne would have still lost her hearing.
Weiss only pitched the show to one network — ABC Family — which immediately bought it. But while Brooke Bowman, vice president of original programming at ABC Family, loved the pitch, she wanted the show to have one more point of potential conflict.
"Brooke asked, 'Is there one other thing that would make the wealthy family really upset and tense and angry that they missed out? Maybe something that they feel like if they had their daughter, money would have changed things?" Weiss recalls.
Weiss remembered a class she had taken in college called Theater of the Deaf and said to Bowman, "What if one of the girls is deaf?"
Over the course of five seasons, the Peabody Award-winning series that earned a 75 Metascore from critics deftly mixed tackling a plethora of societal issues (cyber bullying, alcoholism, socioeconomic inequalities — to name a few) with romances and drama for both the parents and the teens. But even more importantly, it centered deaf characters (and actors) in its narrative, including storylines about the struggles deaf children born to hearing parents face when it comes to acceptance and communication and education. But it also showed them just like other teens, too.
"They laugh and lie and cheat and steal and have sex and do everything that hearing kids do," Weiss notes.
In addition to Leclerc as Daphne, the show features Sean Berdy as Emmett, Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin as Melody, Ryan Lane as Travis Barnes, Daniel Durant as Matthew, Stephanie Nogueras as Natalie, Anthony Natale as Cameron, and Ashley Fiolek as Robin. America's Next Top Model's first deaf winner Nyle DiMarco also guest-stars in the show.
"I think we always knew that what we were doing was unique. The subtitles and the fact that there were silent scenes was new back then," Leclerc tells Metacritic. "As we started getting that feedback, it was almost instantly positive right away."
In honor of the five year anniversary of the series finale, Metacritic talks to Weiss, Leclerc, Marano, and Marie about making this groundbreaking series.
Weiss knew the only way to accurately portray the experience of a deaf teenager was to meet some.
Lizzy Weiss: I knew that I needed to research and talk to deaf teens. There's one school in Los Angeles called Marlton School. I went to a class of deaf high school seniors and I had an interpreter and when I explained the idea for the show the kids were so astonished. They kept saying, "There are two leads and one of them is the deaf girl!?"
With the pilot a go, the casting process began. Marie was the first person cast.
L.W.: Regina is the only character in the pilot who is fluent in ASL and we said, "We haven't cast the rest of the show but you've got to start learning how to sign."
Constance Marie: The character had to look like she had done sign language with her daughter for 12 years. It was a daunting task. I know what it's like to represent a community that does not get a lot of representation and I wanted to do my very best work to play this role with so much dignity and respect that the deaf community deserved.
The role of Daphne went to Leclerc, who was already fluent in ASL and experiences intermittent hearing loss due to Ménière's disease.
L.W.: We had a lot of needs for Daphne. She had to be on the deaf spectrum, fluent in sign language already, and she had to be able to act. Once we had Katie we weren't nervous anymore.
Katie Leclerc: It was my first big series. I got to be part of the other cast members' screen tests. I felt really cool. And let me tell you when Lucas Grabeel from High School Musical walked in, I almost fell over. Lizzy afterwards was like, "Who do you think we should pick? Who did you vibe with?" And I was like, "The High School Musical guy!" I was such a fangirl and so green and so inexperienced and the whole process was amazing.
Marano, perhaps best known at the time for playing April on Gilmore Girls, landed the part of Bay.
Vanessa Marano: I had done a pilot for ABC Family the year prior that did very well but didn't get picked up. Next year came around they had five different amazing pilots that had great female leads and none of them wanted me, including Switched at Birth. There were three other girls that they were more interested in. For whatever reason, it didn't work out with any of those girls. So, I went in and tested and then I got it. When you read the Switched at Birth pilot, you thought they're never going to find Daphne. Bay ended up being the harder role to find.
Leclerc and Marano quickly became friends as they took on starring in a heavily promoted television series.
K.L.: I have loved Vanessa Marano since the moment I first laid eyes on this girl. We were both pretty skeptical of each other. We had both had experience of being the younger girl on set and being underestimated and/or drama with other cast members so we both had some skepticism when approaching this new friendship. The first fitting we did was a six-hour wardrobe fitting. They ordered Chinese food for us, and the wardrobe person wanted Vanessa and I to wear trash bags over the clothes and saran wrap ourselves in case we dripped any Chinese food on the clothes, and Vanessa and I both did it. I looked at her and was like, "We are going to be best friends, aren't we?"
V.M.: The very first time I met Katie was at the test. They had her there not to read with us, but to stand next to us so they could see what we all looked like. The second time I met her we were doing a wardrobe fitting for the pilot. I have a picture of us wrapped in cellophane, basically. My mom is there because I had literally just turned 18, and that was a fun moment where we bonded because it was ridiculous. From that moment we got along. I couldn't imagine having a better costar in the entire world. She's one of my best friends to this day and I love her.
Except for Leclerc who already was fluent in ASL, the rest of the cast had the daunting challenge of having to learn ASL in a relatively short amount of time.
V.M.: I was lucky because unlike Constance, who had to come in and [had to] be fluent, fluent, fluent, I could learn along with Bay. It was a really cool thing and I've never had a job since where I've gotten to learn a skill as a result of doing the job. So that was something I was really grateful for. It got better and it got easier, but that's when they started writing more lines. I spent every weekend of the six years that we did the show with our ASL master learning my lines.
While the cast learned ASL, Leclerc worked on perfecting Daphne's accent.
K.L.: I made an audiogram of Daphne's hearing loss based on what sounds she would be able to say and what sound she wouldn't be able to say. I had a foundation of how many different kinds of accents there are. It gave me a little bit of flexibility in developing that voice. I worked a lot with my sister [who is an ASL teacher]. I'm so proud of it. I really am. That first season, especially, I wish I could go back and show you my scripts. I had three different color highlighters — lines that were spoken, lines only [in] sign language and lines [that were] simultaneous communication. I had these tabs in my scripts. I did all my homework. I worked so hard.
The show was picked up to series and when it premiered on June 6, 2011, it became ABC Family's highest-rated debut.
L.W.: Of course you're always nervous. I really loved it. I knew it tested great. I remember sitting in the café and Kate Juergens, who was then the president of ABC Family called me and said, "We are doing it!" It really was a blessed show.
K.L.: I was answering phones at this strip club job and just hoping and praying. It's life changing, obviously. I was at my job when I got the phone call from Lizzy, and I went down to the kitchen area and I just started jumping up and down. My parents got to come out to Los Angeles and we did a billboard tour. We did like 16 billboards in one day. We just went from billboard to billboard. They were everywhere. It was amazing.
V.M.: I'm very cynical. I've been doing this since I was a little girl, and I've seen a lot of pilots not get picked up. What made Switched different was the table read. There was a very different feeling at the table read. Watching the network react to the sign language, you could feel the room being really impacted by it. You felt the energy in the room in the way that I have never felt that energy.
The pilot aired while we were shooting at this car wash in Agoura Hills, California. I remember being covered in water and just getting the numbers in and thinking, "Oh my God, we did so well!" We got picked up for a back 22 [episodes] for the first season which is crazy. [I knew] I had a job for another year and a half. I've never had that guarantee and that changed my life — I purchased a home.
Matlin joined the cast in the third episode as Emmett's mother. She would remain on the series for the duration of the show's run.
L.W.: Marlee came on after we shot the pilot. She said, "Can I be a part of it?" I had originally conceived Emmett to be the adopted son of two deaf dads but that scene had to be cut and I said, "Let's change the back story. Do you want to be his mom?"
C.M.: When Marlee Matlin was cast as Regina's best friend, I thought, "Oh my God my sign language game has got to be on point." She was very impressed with the amount of hard work we had all put into this show.
In the eighth episode of the first season, entitled "Pandora's Box," it's revealed that Regina knew about the switch since the girls were 3 years old.
V.M.: That was a shock. The only person who knew was Constance because it affected how she would play things and how she would say things. What a great twist that was — probably one of the best ones we got to do.
C.M.: When we shot the pilot, Lizzy whispered it in my ear. I was shocked. I said, "Oh my God. She's such a horrible mother." And she said, "Would you give your daughter back right now if you found out she wasn't yours?" That's what I love about Lizzy's writing. She can write both sides of the argument so thoroughly and passionately that it really makes you think. I was sworn to secrecy. I couldn't tell any of the other actors. I had to do what Regina did: I had to hide it with every ounce of my being.
Unfortunately learning ASL so quickly and intensely took a toll.
C.M.: Because I could do it, they just kept writing more and more, and that became a problem for my quality of life. Most interpreters take two years to learn the language, and I had three weeks. I had gotten so much fan feedback saying, "Thank you for showing that it's possible to learn sign language." That's why it was just devastating to me when I was injured. I ended up with permanent nerve damage and tendonitis in both hands. I felt like I let them down. I just could not do it anymore.
In the show's second season, an episode entitled "Uprising," which aired on March 4, 2013, was entirely in ASL.
L.W.: The rule that the writers and I made [was] that there had to be a deaf character in every scene. We decided to use music because music was used on our show to show emotion and the internal life of our characters. It was so scary [but] it turned out so great and so fun for everyone that I said, "Let's do something different every 10 episodes."
K.L.: We knew that we were taking a risk and [are] thankful to ABC Family for allowing us to take that risk. The way that our set worked, each deaf actor had an interpreter for them. So if there were seven deaf actors in a scene, there were also seven interpreters, seven people relaying information slightly differently from each other. In that episode, I took it upon myself to say, "Everyone look at me. I'm going to be the interpreter. I'm the actor in the scene with you and we want the same thing. The director is going to talk to me and I'm going to tell you." That's the only time that ever really happened, but it created a really unified experience.
V.M.: It was really Katie's episode, Sean Berdy's episode, Daniel Durant's episode. Ryan Lane's episode. All the fantastic deaf performers really got to shine in that episode. It was super cool.
The show's fourth season featured a story arc on consent. Now in college, Bay gets drunk at a party and wakes up in bed naked next to her ex-boyfriend Tank (Max Adler). Bay doesn't remember what happened but knows that she never said "yes" to having sex with Tank.
V.M.: Lizzy really towed a very fine line. She really wrote the hell out of that thing. What was interesting about that episode if you think about the fact that "Me too" happened after, [is] in many ways it was very ahead of its time with its storytelling. There was a big reckoning that was happening with campus assaults, and a lot of women were not getting their due at the time even though they were very bravely coming forward. It was a fascinating episode to shoot because it was so gray. People really had a lot of opinions while shooting it. We worked with some amazing organizations. It was a hard storyline to get right.
L.W.: I have a son and a daughter. It was really important to me to not paint the boy as a monster. There are stories of monsters where there is absolutely no gray area but no one had ever done, "What is consent?"
In January 2016, ABC Family was rebranded as Freeform. In March of 2016 it was announced that Switched at Birth had been canceled and would end after 103 episodes. The series finale entitled "Long Live Love" aired on April 11, 2017. The final image recreated the show's publicity shots from the first season of Leclerc and Marano's heads side by side.
L.W.: We shot that scene last at the house we used for exteriors in Beverly Hills. Everyone came to that spot where we shot the final scene on the final night. It was very very emotional. We all hugged and cried. I think we knew how special it was. It always was a really happy set.
C.M.: The tears were real. We were in the sweet spot of being Freeform's first show to hit 100 episodes and yet canceled. We were heralded as this huge accomplishment and then not picked up. We were all committed to make sure we went out with the same heart and compassion that we entered the show with. It was challenging to say goodbye to those characters.
V.M.: What sticks out so much in my brain is the actual final-ness of it all. How often do you get a show that resonates with people and that you like working at? That was something that was really tough for everybody. It hit us all very very hard.
K.L.: The prop department pranked me on the last day. They rigged something so that when I opened my trailer door a whole bunch of ping pong balls would fall out at me. That was the final thing that happened on set. I'm kind of an emotional person and I think everyone was like, "Is Katie going to be OK? We should do something silly so we aren't sobbing on her way out the door."
But the show's legacy lives on. Weiss and Matlin are even teaming up again for Bonus Family, a multigenerational family drama about two families — one deaf and one hearing — that merge, late in life
L.W.: A generation of teenagers grew up watching deaf characters acting exactly like hearing characters and seeing them as full people.
K.L.: Having the opportunity to share that culture in a big way was just really great and really special. My sister is an ASL teacher in the state of Utah, and Switched at Birth to this day is taught in the ASL national curriculum as an example of something you can show your students and it's nationally approved. I think Switched at Birth lives on in a lot of ways and it a lot of people's hearts. I still get recognized. Still people say this show inspired me to learn sign language. The lasting ripple effect from this little show that could, I think, will continue for a very long time.
V.M.: I think Switched did a really good job of switching the narrative around. Disability is not disability. It's the thing that makes you beautiful and interesting, and you all should be so lucky that you get to see the world as a deaf person. That was such a part of what made the show great. We were championing so many unheard stories.
C.M.: This show was just so necessary for bridging the hearing and deaf communities. For representation for them, for representation for single mothers, for Latinx single mothers. It was just so relevant on so many levels. With Lizzy's writing, nobody ever felt pandered to. All the ingredients were there to make a beautiful cake.
Where to watch Switched at Birth: