February 11, 2013
Industry News

'Switched at Birth' to Air Groundbreaking All-Sign Language Episode

The March 4 episode of ABC Family's Switched at Birth, starring Katie Leclerc, Vanessa Marano, will air entirely in American Sign Language (ASL). Acclaimed actress Marlee Matlin will reportedly be featured more heavily.

By Amy Amatangelo

Though Switched at Birth creator and executive producer Lizzy Weiss had hoped that the series would do an all American Sign Language (ASL) episode one day, she was quite surprised when ABC Family execs said "‘Let’s do it now while we’re big and we’re fresh.’”

Weiss – who thought the network would say no, or that such an episode would be a "season seven thing when (the series is) off their radar” – will now treat fans to the all-ASL episode on March 4.

During a recent visit to the show’s Santa Clarita set, she noted that the timing worked out perfectly with the story that the cast and crew are telling at this point in the season: “It’s a very organic way of telling a deaf identity story."

In Switched at Birth, wealthy teen Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) and deaf teen Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc), who lost her hearing when she was three, discover they were sent home from the hospital with the wrong parents.

This season, Bay has enrolled in Carlton School for the Deaf. “It’s a nice little flip,” Marano said. “Because we were kind of playing Daphne as being an outsider in a hearing world and now we're playing Bay as an outsider in the deaf world.”

The ground-breaking hour of television will heavily feature Academy Award winning actress Marlee Matlin, who recurs as guidance counselor Melody on the series, and will deal with the deaf students empowering themselves and fighting the system at Carlton. The one rule for the episode, according to Weiss, is that a deaf character has to be in every scene.

While the March 4 episode will feature captions, Weiss doesn’t want the hour to be similar to a foreign-language movie where everything is translated. She is using the Academy Award winning movie, The Artist, as a model and will look to tell some of the story visually.

Weiss is optimistic that the episode will continue to enlighten and inform viewers while entertaining them. “I hope it is really universal to all kinds of people who see the world form a different perspective,” she explained.

“When you have a sort of subculture of a society and people are, ‘Oh it’s so sad.’ And they are like, ‘We’re happy. We have a community. We like our perspective on the world.’ I think that’s interesting to teach the larger society. You don’t have to feel bad for them," she continues. "They’re okay. They’re happy being deaf.”

In addition to pioneering new ways to tell a story, the series, which won the Television Critics Association Award for Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming last summer, will continue to be ripe with teen angst. Now that Bay and her ex-boyfriend Emmett (Sean Berdy) are at the same school, will the couple finally reunite? Marano isn’t so sure – Emmett breached Bay’s trust when he cheated on her.

“Even though she’s been betrayed, she still has so much love for him and he still has so much love for her and I don’t think she’s ready to let him out of her life,” Marano said. “They shared this connection, this love that was so grand and I think was a little bit more than either one of them could handle at that point in their life.”

Berdy agrees. “It’s a difficult time,” he said. “There’s trust issues now with them. It’s going to be a long time for things to get resolved. But I’m a big Emmett and Bay fan.”

Lea Thompson, who plays Bay’s mom Kathryn Kennish on the series, appreciates that even with all the teen drama, the show always incorporates stories for the adult characters on the series. “I feel like it enriches the show,” she said. “There’s a longing even in children to understand adults and understand families and to still be connected to that. I feel like that’s what special about the show.”

This season, Kathryn’s husband John (D.W. Moffett), is running for State Senator and Kathryn is having trouble being the complacent political wife who smiles politely and only talks recipes.

“She’s a very interesting character,” Thompson said. “When she started out, she was so kind of one way. She was kind of sheltered and that’s the interesting thing about the switch. It’s such a great device to kind of throw a grenade in the middle of her world. It goes off and she has to try to put the pieces back together.”

Thompsons’s daughter, actress Zoey Deutch (Ringer), will begin a guest star arc on the series February 18. “It’s really fun. Of course I love her and I think she’s wonderful so I’m really happy she’s here,” she said before adding with a laugh. “She’s playing a little bit of a vixen now. I wish she was playing somebody else.”

Amy Amatangelo blogs at tvgal.com, is published in the
Boston Herald and tweets at @AmyTVGal.

Follow Emmys.com on Twitter: @primetimeemmys.

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