You can blame Laura for this one. She egged me on.
Until a few months ago, the sum total of what I knew about Switched at Birth was what channel it was on and that two girls discover the eponymous event as an inciting action to the series. I’ve certainly followed my share of high school / college dramas, but I tend to need them to hook on some of my other interests (usually sci-fi / fantasy elements), so I never really thought much about it.
Then Max Adler announced he had a recurring role for the then-upcoming (now finished) season1. I’ve had a giant soft spot for him since his turn as Karofsky on Glee, a high school show which for several seasons bypassed my usual spec fic requirements by appealing to my musical theatre geekery instead. So, I took a shot on the latest season. As an added bonus, I discovered that half the characters in the show are Deaf, and nearly everyone in the cast signs to some degree, so I was hitting two of my geek fascinations at once2.
Here’s the thing: I like a lot of the performances on this show. And the plots are actually ambitious in more than your standard “our teenagers think about and have sex” kinds of ways. It’s just that I feel like there’s a lot missing in the execution of those plots and / or the fleshing out of characters, so much so that I often found myself wanting to shake the show by the shoulders and yell “stop short-cutting this and wasting your potential!”
Spoilers for the just-completed season, by the by. If you watch on DVD, or you’re backed the heck up on your DVR, you may want to turn away. There’s just no way for me to talk about what I want to talk about without spoiling.
An ensemble show several seasons in is always pretty likely to have a lot of plots going on. SaB is no exception. I’m going to pick on two of them as my primary examples, though. Since they’re in the title, let’s stick with stories centered on our switched girls.
Daphne Wants All the Boys
First there’s Daphne and her romantic dilemmas. This season, she meets Jorge and Campbell, who both wind up liking her, and she likes them, and so far why am I complimenting ambition in this? Because Campbell is in a wheelchair after suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI) while snowboarding, and while that is an element in some of the plots, insofar as the “Jorge or Campbell?” romantic conundrum goes, the show works really hard to make that Not The Point.
This doesn’t feel like “Daphne has to get over her hangups about the guy in the wheelchair,” so much as she really just doesn’t know which of two guys she’s into. On that score, I’m really impressed. And I think the show succeeds in creating that dynamic. The problem is, once it does that, I’m not sure I know what Campbell has going for him that makes this choice so difficult.
Jorge works as a PA at the free clinic, dotes on his niece, and is generally supportive and responsive and open.
Meanwhile, Campbell is … into snowboarding and basketball. And he makes jokes sometimes.
I realize that folks don’t always pick the person who’s best for them, and if that was where this storyline seemed to be going, that might go someplace interesting.3 But Campbell’s not giving Daphne some kind of danger high or anything. Making a life while coping with a TBI is, unequivocally, deserving of admiration and respect. But like I said, that’s about the only thing at this point Campbell really has that sets him apart from anyone else on the show at all, much less the more thoroughly-drawn Jorge.
Jock with a Heart of Gold
I jumped on this bandwagon in the first place because of Max Adler, so if you thought I wasn’t going to talk about his character (Tank), you’re just being silly now.
I’ll put aside the question of Tank’s romantic suitability for Bay (The other of our switched kids) in favor of the more specific use of him to tangentially comment on fraternity life.
At first, it seemed like the show was eschewing the expected “Frat guy gains depth” plot. Bay gets drunk at a party, and Tank steers her clear of hooking up with a jerk in his fraternity, and that all seemed to be happening without making the jerk out to be All The Fraternity Guys Ever.
Indeed, one of the next times we see Tank and a lot of his fraternity brothers, they’re holding an extra practice to help out one of their teammates. I seem to recall Tank organized it, but there was really a sense in that moment that this kind of thing was indicative of the support structure at play in this fraternal system he was part of (“they’d do the same for me”).
I’ll admit here and now that I’m not the biggest fan of the fraternity system. But I have had friends who were a part of it. And since generally fraternities in stories are either Those Wacky Fraternity Boys or That Misogynistic Group of Drunks, I was intrigued by a storyline that might try to take a pro and con look at things.
Unfortunately, the set up doesn’t pay off. Some of Tank’s brothers organize a “dog fight,” where those members participating are bringing girls they feel are the least attractive in order to win bragging rights. Bay finds out about it when one of her female friends is an invitee, gets understandably upset, and Tank makes it clear he’s not participating, then secretly sabotages the whole thing.
Okay, so here’s where the juicy conflict comes, I think. Here’s where we get to start balancing scales and putting people in a position to make a possibly tough choice. Except, not so much.
Bay has a blatant example of the kind of nasty personalities that apparently make up this group Tank’s in. And Tank actively admits the guys behind the party are horrible. So, why is he still pledging the fraternity?
In what I see as a parallel with “What does Daphne see in Campbell,” the answer seems to be: because.
After going to reasonable lengths to show us that Tank is actually a thoughtful person, that he’s kind and considerate, it just rings incredibly hollow and seems to do a real disservice to the character.
Most fraternities have at least one major philanthropy that they support. Maybe Tank is a big proponent of that philanthropy? Countering the jerks organizing a party with a big pile of money raised for a worthy cause makes things more complicated, and thus more interesting.
I don’t know how prevalent it remains, but there have in the past also been very real career opportunities to be gained through the connections fraternity membership provides. Given that part of Bay’s personal arc this season involved trying to brown nose her art professor to open some academic doors, that seems like another angle that provides a nice comparative challenge.
Instead, there are just a lot of tiffs that amount to Bay holding up an incontrovertible example of douche-nozzle behavior, and Tank saying “that’s not fair, they aren’t all like that.” Do those kinds of defenses happen in real life? Absolutely. But they don’t make for interesting drama so much as repetitive non-starters. Once I’ve heard that fight once, I don’t see the point of hearing it again with nothing new to add.
The final turn of the season, wherein Tank realizes that, you know, the majority of his ‘brothers’ really aren’t what he thought they were, can still happen. It’s just that, instead of spending a lot of time propping up straw men, you’ve built up some actual conflict. It isn’t about Tank leaving the group of jerks who never did anything worthwhile, because there’s little to nothing compelling about that. It’s about Tank sacrificing something we’ve grown to appreciate might have some real, tangible worth.
Adler certainly sells the moment as such. Watching the mix of fear, shock, and disbelief with which he says “I de-pledged my fraternity,” I absolutely feel how much of a sacrifice this is to Tank. I just wish the writers had done a better job of developing why that might be other than “Tank is a fraternity guy.”
So … there’s that. Like I said, there were a lot of storylines at play in the season, but these two are the ones that I think most point to why I’ve found my entree into the series by turns compelling and frustrating. The show returns in June. Whether I pick it up again will probably depend on if the compelling or the frustrating stuck with me more by then.
1. What just finished might also be the first half of the season. All these finales get me confused as to whether I’m watching a new season or a half a season or what the bloody heck. [back]
2. It may be necessary to qualify “geeking” when it comes to ASL and Deaf culture. It’s not meant to belittle either one. Rather, it’s meant to make clear that I’m not even remotely expert or integrated with either one, but I find them both extremely compelling, so they get my attention when they show up in popular media. [back]
3. Admittedly, it’s problematic making one of the few differently-abled characters on television your Heel, so there are a host of other issues such a turn would entail. [back]