There's something to be said for old-fashioned, earnest storytelling. It's not sexy, it's not deep or dark or intense or any of the things critics often rave about. But it can be appealing.
ABC Family's "Switched at Birth" (9 p.m. EDT Monday) is this type of show, perhaps a little reminiscent of "7th Heaven," but with more clueless parents. It's understandable that families desperate for TV programming to watch together -- scripted programming, not "America's Got Talent" or its ilk -- might be drawn to this latest original cable drama series.
It's a high-concept show, a conceit that happens rarely in real life: Two girls were switched at birth by a careless hospital employee and their families only learn the truth when the girls are teenagers.
Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano, "Gilmore Girls"), a bit of a rebel with an artistic streak, lives with her retired pro-athlete father (D.W. Moffett, "Friday Night Lights"), stay-at-home mom (Lea Thompson, "Caroline in the City") and older brother (Lucas Grabeel, "High School Musical") in a huge house. She also attends an expensive private school.
Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc) is deaf. She lives with her Puerto Rican single mother (Constance Marie, "George Lopez") and grandmother on the proverbial "other side of the tracks" in a house with bars over the windows. Daphne became deaf at age 3 when she contracted meningitis and there's an implication that it was a result of her lower-class environment.
A blood test reveals Daphne is really a child of the Kennishes and Bay is really a Vasquez. Looks-wise, it makes more sense, and over the first hour of the series viewers also get to see personality traits that flow more logically from biological mother to birth daughter.
It's an interesting concept for a show and the deaf angle is particularly welcome since TV viewers don't often get a glimpse into the deaf community. It's too bad "Switched at Birth" dumbs down its characters.
The rich mom raises her voice to speak to Daphne and has to be told, "just face her and talk normal." Rich dad, after visiting Daphne's neighborhood, tells his wife, "Bars on the windows, bail bonds on every corner, I was nervous." It's like series creator Lizzy Weiss ("Blue Crush"), who wrote the pilot, took a course called Rich White People Stereotypes 101.
Kathryn Kennish, played by Thompson, is particularly prone to gaffes, asking Marie's single mother, Regina, "Are you Mexican?" Perhaps one or two blunders in a single episode would be acceptable, but there are so many here it starts to feel like a race to pile on cliches.
Adults should know better, but it's easier to accept missteps by the kid characters, particularly in relation to the deaf community. "Switched at Birth" is at its strongest when the focus stays on the teens.
Marano plays moody with aplomb. She previously made a strong impression on "Gilmore Girls" as Luke's daughter, April. She's joined in "Switched at Birth" by Grabeel (a standout in the "HSM" franchise playing Ryan, Sharpay's brother) and two newcomers.
Leclerc, who is not deaf but does have a degenerative hearing-loss disease, makes a positive impression as the sunnier Daphne. And deaf actor Sean Berdy does a commendable job as Emmett, Daphne's friend who does not suffer fools or the ignorant. (Marlee Matlin will guest star in several episodes as Emmett's mother.)
Credit "Switched at Birth" for realistically including moments that show the world from Daphne's point of view, including a scene where she tours Bay's private school and "Switched" puts viewers in Daphne's overwhelmed shoes. Scenes between Daphne and Emmett are simply subtitled as they communicate using American Sign Language.
Monday's pilot episode ends with an unrealistic turn of events that may not ring true to life, but is necessary if "Switched at Birth" is to be sustained as a weekly series. The plot twist draws the disparate characters together and ensures plenty of family drama in episodes to come.
It seems likely that, in time, the family dynamic is where "Switched" will draw its stories from over the long term. This program is not the smartest or most daring family show to come along, but it has enough worthy elements to recommend that family-drama fans give it a try.