'Switched at Birth' goes silent with a message that rings loud and clear
Monday night's episode of ABC Family's "Switched at Birth" took a chance at teaching just that. The episode, called "Uprising," forced its viewers to understand what its deaf characters -- and many people throughout the world with hearing impairments -- experience everyday. But they weren't the only ones remembering that we're all outcasts in different circumstances, and we all need to be a little more willing to listen and see varying points of view.
As the show began, its two stars, Vanessa Marano and Katie Leclerc (who is hard of hearing herself), warned that viewers' TVs didn't need fixing and, after the first scene, the rest of the episode would be done completely in American Sign Language, a first for scripted, mainstream television.
The result was moving and impactful in a way Ryan Murphy (the man behind "Glee" and "The New Normal" determined to teach you a lesson every. single. week) can only dream to be. Even the musical swells were kept to a minimum and proved more of a distraction than the total silences.
The story covered in the episode was fairly simple. Deaf school Carlton has been facing financial troubles since the show's first season and, last week, it was announced that the school board was shutting it down. The students are outraged and come together to plan a protest locking themselves into the school to force the board to reconsider.
Among the classmates, numerous arguments arise. Many of the deaf students feel that the recent addition of hearing students is an invasion of their home, the one place they feel the most safe, the place where they can be individuals rather than "the deaf kid" they know they'd be at a regular school. And the few hearing students feel discriminated against in much that same way.
This is the kind of episode that should get people talking. Families, friends, colleagues, and the like can see this episode and the experiences of its two teenage leads as a jumping off point for real conversation about real issues of tolerance and understanding.
"It's not just relating to deaf kids," show creator Lizzy Weiss told the Los Angeles Times. "It should be a very universal story."
This moment in television history may wind up compared to another cult show's beloved silent episode: "Hush" from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer's" fourth season. Despite its small (but growing) audience, an argument can be made that "Switched at Birth"'s makes a deeper impression -- "Buffy" showed us how important it is to communicate with loved ones; "Switched at Birth" forces us to listen.
Watch a scene, starring Lea Thompson and Marlee Matlin, from the episode:
"Switched at Birth," ABC Family's highest-rated show after "Pretty Little Liars," airs Mondays at 8 PM.