A scene from ABC's "Switched at Birth." (Eric McCandless / ABC Family )
On a chilly morning at Santa Clarita Studios, the cast and crew of ABC Family's "Switched at Birth" are about to tape a scene at an outdoor carwash. It is not quiet on the set. A creaky cart rattles past. Rubber cables swoosh as they're dragged along the concrete. A hiss comes from the hot-coffee dispenser at craft services. In the distance, a car engine starts up. The collective sprightly chatter of milling crew members rises, then falls as a call for calm goes out.
The director, in a North Face jacket and wool cap, shouts, "Action!"
And then: silence.
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Two of the show's central characters, Daphne (Katie Leclerc) and Travis (Ryan Lane), are in a heated argument, but the only sound from the set is the gentle swish of the wind and an occasional snap of a wrist or slap of hand in palm. That's because "Switched at Birth" is a bilingual show. This scene is unfolding in American Sign Language.
In casting a mix of deaf, hearing and hard-of-hearing actors — as well as showcasing silent scenes between characters communicating in sign language (subtitled for hearing viewers) in every episode — the show is a technical and cultural pioneer.
On March 4, a week before the show's winter-season finale, "Switched" will air an all-ASL episode, something the network says has never been done before on scripted, mainstream television.
Creator Lizzy Weiss, a Los Angeles native who wrote the surfing movie "Blue Crush," didn't set out to create a show about deaf teens. She was inspired by a "This American Life" story about two women in their 50s who'd been switched at birth.
The network suggested that to further bump up the complexity she give one of the characters a disability. Weiss doesn't have deaf family members, but she'd taken a sign language class as a freshman at Duke University. When researching the pilot, she visited L.A.'s Marlton school for the deaf, and that's when everything changed.
"I told all these deaf teenagers that if my pilot gets on air, the deaf teenage girl would be the protagonist," Weiss says. "They were just in disbelief, and then total excitement, to think that someone who looked and sounded and acted like them would be, week to week, the lead on a show."
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Now midway through its second season, "Switched," the network's second-highest-rated title after "Pretty Little Liars," teems with romantic conundrums and cliffhangers. But it also offers moments of surprising depth and complexity as it explores issues of identity, self-expression and nature versus nurture.
The show, which airs Mondays at 8 p.m, centers on two Kansas City girls who discover, at 16, that they'd been accidentally switched in the hospital as newborns. Further punctuating the drama are the families' differences: Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) lives in a wealthy, two-parent home. Daphne Vasquez (Leclerc) is the only child of a struggling, single, Latina mother, a hairdresser who's also a recovering alcoholic. A bout of meningitis at age 3 left Daphne deaf.
Marlee Matlin, who broke barriers in Hollywood as a deaf actress, wasn't originally part of the cast. But she viewed the pilot to give Weiss feedback and says she was so taken with the show's authenticity she asked to be in "Switched."
Matlin now plays Melody, mother of deaf heartthrob Emmett (Sean Berdy), whose parents were originally scripted as two gay men. And though she has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies — she holds the title of youngest lead actress Oscar winner for "Children of a Lesser God" — she says that "Switched" has been groundbreaking for her.
It's the first time she's seen multiple deaf characters featured so prominently on TV. It's also the first time she's been able to act without a third-party translator — either an on-screen interpreter, a narrative voice-over or a character written in a scene to repeat out loud what she's signing.
"The subtitles allow deaf characters to communicate freely without being parroted," Matlin says. "It's like being an actor who speaks French, who has been dubbed in English all their acting career and suddenly the audience hears their real voice. It's very freeing for me!"
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In "Uprising," the all-ASL episode, the students at Carlton School for the Deaf stage a protest to prevent their school from closing and themselves from being dispersed to hearing schools. The plot was inspired by, and marks the 25th anniversary of, the real-life student protests, known as "Deaf President Now," that took place at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., in March 1988.
"It's a story about kids who are different fighting back, it's not just relating to deaf kids," says Weiss. "It should be a very universal story."