"Switched at Birth" takes an emotionally wrought high concept… (Bruce Birmelin / ABC Family )
Although it lives in a brightly lighted, immaculately groomed, all-smiles world of its own making, ABC Family's new hour-long drama "Switched at Birth" takes an emotionally wrought high concept — who hasn't wondered what it would be like to find out those irritating people weren't really your parents? — and raises tantalizing questions about family, identity and the responsibilities thereof. And if creator Lizzy Weiss can't quite bear to hear any answer that doesn't have the word "love" in it, she and the show's very talented cast manage to repeatedly provoke the question: "What would a person do in this situation?"
This situation is the discovery through a high-school science project that there is no way the blood of Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) could match that of her parents, Kathryn (Lea Thompson) and John (D.W. Moffett). Turns out that Bay was switched at birth with Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc), who has been raised by single mother Regina (Constance Marie). The two live, conveniently enough, just a few miles, though several income brackets, away. Before you can say "get my lawyer on the phone" (which, amazingly the Kennishes never do, despite being so wealthy that they have a guest house), the families are in the same room together wondering how they never noticed that each was raising a child who looked nothing like them.
There are the pat contrasts you would expect — rich versus poor, traditional family versus non — but there's also an unexpected twist. Because of a bout of meningitis as a toddler, Daphne is deaf, which adds an emotional complexity to the Kennishes' reaction — class becomes more literally about access to resources, including healthcare. More important, it creates a parallel storyline about deaf culture that is just as intriguing as the titular scenario.
A guest house mentioned in the first act will be put to use by the third; of course, this new extended family must live together. Fortunately, care is taken in making that happen, and all manner of ancillary storylines are put in place for future episodes.
But it's the cast that lifts fairly heavy prefab furniture and moves it without breaking a sweat. As the white lady with the nice house, Kathryn is, predictably, tightly wound, but Thompson adroitly sidesteps harpy and Tiger Mom territory; likewise, Moffett's John is overly assertive, but he is also clearly propelled as much by anguish as by rich man's arrogance, and Marie's Regina, though inevitably the toughest of the three, also often seems like the only adult who truly understands what is happening.
As the girls, Leclerc and Marano (who was recently the best thing on the short-lived "Scoundrels") could not be more different but not for once in that awful she's a princess/she's a tomboy way. Daphne is calm, Bay is prickly, and both are people.
If the situation of "Switched at Birth" often seems surreal and at times contrived (seriously, no one is going to even call a lawyer? Or a therapist? Or the hospital?), the performances keep the story grounded as yet another alternative American family blooms under the California sun.
'Switched at Birth'
Where: ABC Family
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14 (may be inappropriate for viewers under age 14)