At its launch in 1977, ABC Family was a Christian network (CBN Satellite Service, then CBN Cable Network) primarily focused on religious programming. In 1988, it switched its emphasis to “family” programming — still vaguely religious, but now also decidedly family-oriented — by rebranding multiple times: The CBN Family Channel (1998), The Family Channel (1990), Fox Family (1998), and finally ABC Family (2001). ABC Family as we currently know it wouldn’t really exist until 2006, with the addition of the slogan “A New Kind of Family,” which really hammers home the network’s core mission: A dedication to original programming about families, even if the particular families in question aren’t what we’re used to.
There are plenty of programs to watch on ABC Family with your family, though they are mostly syndicated: Boy Meets World, Reba, 8 Simple Rules, and Gilmore Girls are just a few. But ABC Family is most interesting when it comes to its original programming, both past and present, airing shows that seem to be specifically targeted to teenage girls. The programs are universal (plenty of my guy friends are obsessed with Pretty Little Liars and Greek), but there is a definite gendered slant to the network. It’s not a bad thing — in fact, it’s actually pretty wonderful — but it does mean that ABC Family doesn’t get the respect it deserves. And that’s a shame, because the network has been doing great things in recent years, and so many of its programs deserve viewers. Here’s a look at the ABC Family shows that you should be watching.
I was not expecting Switched at Birth to be anything more than a silly show with an unintentionally hilarious title, but it quickly became one of the most emotional teen dramas currently on television. It goes deeper than its “two teen girls discover they were switched at birth” logline and explores the complicated relationship between two sudden-sisters from completely different backgrounds. There is the occasional quiet resentment that arises from realizing you could have had a much different (and maybe better) life — Daphne was born to wealthy parents but ended up living with a single mother in a low-income neighborhood and, as a child, contracted meningitis that resulted in her loss of hearing.
Daphne’s deafness is integral to the show and is dealt with carefully and compassionately. Switched at Birth also makes some interesting stylistic choices; scenes with two deaf characters signing are often completely free of sound. In Season 2, the show aired an episode told almost entirely in American Sign Language.
Switched at Birth includes the requisite love triangles, some silly high school drama, and side plots involving the parents. It’s become one of those shows that rises above its original premise but never forgets it.