I’m always impressed when a TV show can overcome a ridiculous premise and turn it into something special, which is the case with ABC Family’s newest drama, Switched at Birth (premiering Monday at 9pm). Despite an awkward idea that would be better suited for a Lifetime original movie (two families learn that their now teenage daughters were accidentally switched at birth … and one of them is DEAF!), the show has heartwarming and relatable characters, creating a TV show that makes viewers feel like a part of the family.

It’s refreshing to see this kind of drama on ABC Family, which has recently become overrun by the silly sexual exploits on The Secret Life of the American Teenager and the intense mystery and scandal of Pretty Little Liars. Switched at Birth is far more traditional and family-friendly than either of those shows.

On the show, Bay (Vanessa Marano) does a science experiment to determine her blood type and learns it’s incompatible with her parents. That leads to the DNA test that reveals the big switcheroo. Fans of Gilmore Girls will undoubtedly be amused since Marano played Luke’s daughter who also showed up thanks to a DNA test.

Bay and her wealthy parents (Lea Thompson and D.W. Moffett) meet the girl who should’ve been theirs, Daphne (Katie Leclerc), and are surprised to find out she’s deaf. I can count the number of series regular deaf characters on primetime shows on one hand, so it’s nice to see diversity on television that isn’t all about race or sexual orientation.

Daphne and her mother Regina (Constance Marie) are from the other side of the tracks, so to speak, so while Switched at Birth might appear to be about a deaf girl, it’s actually an issue of class distinctions. Bay’s parents become concerned that their biological daughter isn’t being raised with all the privileges they can afford, but Regina doesn’t think someone else should tell her how to raise her daughter.

From the silly premise, a slew of potential dramatic storylines become apparent, and Switched at Birth is interested in addressing all of them. It deals with rich vs. poor, hearing vs. deaf, nature vs. nurture and countless other themes.

The show’s primary strengths, however, are the characters. Bay is a rebellious teenager who is struggling to figure out who she is long before learning that her parents aren’t really her parents. Daphne is a confident and assertive girl, but the possibility of going to a fancy private school and living in a mansion challenges all of that. Bay’s parents are good people at heart, but also a bit clueless around their deaf biological daughter and wrong-headed when it comes to the fact that they want Daphne back, but they also want to keep Bay.

Switched at Birth also has my favorite new character on television, Daphne’s deaf best friend Emmett (played by Sean Berdy), a guy who generally thinks people who can hear are stupid and don’t understand the deaf, so he wants nothing to do with them. For a character who doesn’t talk, he’s funny, frank and a little mean, but also a strong and loyal friend to Daphne. If that’s not enough to sell you, Emmett’s mother will be played by Oscar winner Marlee Matlin.

Are the “switched at birth” premise and the prominence of deaf characters gimmicks to help make the show stand out? Yes, but the magic of Switched at Birth is that it takes those gimmicks and treats them in a realistic and serious manner. Nothing is as simple as it appears on this show, and neither is the show itself. Now that Life Unexpected is gone, Switched at Birth has officially taken its place as my new favorite heartwarming family drama on TV.

(Image courtesy of ABC Family)

Photo AlbumSwitched at Birth – 1.01 “Pilot’

John Kubicek

Senior Writer, BuddyTV

John watches nearly every show on TV, but he specializes in sci-fi/fantasy like The Vampire DiariesSupernatural and True Blood. However, he can also be found writing about everything from Survivor and Glee to One Tree Hill and Smallville.