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.
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 Monday, 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
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, which is for deaf students, 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."
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 centers on two Kansas City, Mo., 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 that she asked to be in "Switched."
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," she 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!"
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," Weiss says. "It should be a very universal story."
With long, silent stretches of sometimes barely audible ambient sound, the all-ASL episode of "Switched" immerses the audience in the point of view of a deaf person. To balance the lack of audible dialogue, there's more music in the episode, which is also decidedly more visual. Snippets of cellphone texts flash on and off the screen, there are more shots of hotheaded action, and the costumes, because of a school play, are more lavish.
"Will people have the patience, will they be willing to explore this with us? It's a little risky," admits ABC Family's head of programming, Kate Juergens. "But I'm also intrigued about the possibility. It's a fascinating world ... and the silence is so powerful."
'Switched at Birth'
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: ABC Family