SANTA CLARITA, Calif. -- Watching actors film ABC Family's "Switched at Birth" is unlike a visit to the set of any other TV show. Even as filming on a scene goes on, deaf extras who communicate using American Sign Language continue to converse with one another without making a sound once they are off camera.
No matter how quickly their hands move, they don't create enough noise to disrupt a take, something even the quietest whisper might accomplish.
It's a small but notable detail that pops out during a January visit to the set of this quality family drama that's also a ratings hit. "Switched at Birth" ranked as the No. 1 scripted cable drama Monday among female viewers ages 12-24, 18-34 and 18-49.
The show's initial hook was that two teenage girls -- Daphne (Katie Leclerc) and Bay (Vanessa Marano) -- discover they were switched at birth and placed with the wrong families. Daphne is deaf; Bay is not.
Since the pilot aired a year ago, "Switched at Birth" (8 p.m. Mondays) has improved in its storytelling, broadening beyond the two families into an exploration of the characters' lives and deaf culture.
While it's not unusual for the series to have scenes of deaf characters communicating in silence with subtitles on screen, next week's episode takes it to a new level. After a brief opening scene with dialogue, the rest of the episode is presented with subtitles and characters communicating in ASL.
Ms. Leclerc is hard of hearing (she has degenerative hearing loss), and several other cast members who play deaf characters are deaf, including Oscar winner Marlee Matlin ("Children of a Lesser God"), Sean Berdy and Ryan Lane.
This week's episode, which featured the scenes in production that cold but sunny January day, included a scene where teacher Melody (Ms. Matlin) asks Travis (Mr. Lane) to stay after class at Carlton, a Kansas school for "deafie" students that has accepted a few "hearies," as the teen characters on the show refer to themselves.
As Travis sits and Melody encourages him to apply for college at Washington, D.C.'s Gallaudet University, deaf extras playing students file out of the classroom set but continue communicating with one another in ASL as the scene progresses under the direction of Joanna Kerns. (She played the mom on "Growing Pains" before becoming a director.)
Executive producer Paul Stupin ("Dawson's Creek," "Make It or Break It") said an ASL expert on set ensures all signing is being done correctly and translators are present to translate the director's instructions to deaf cast members.
One of the challenges for producers in the show's editing is squeezing in subtitles at a speed that's not too fast for viewers.
"The subtitles can't keep up with the hands," Ms. Matlin said through an ASL interpreter. "You can't read as fast as you can sign. They said, 'Slow down your signing.' This is the speed we're accustomed to, but you have to think about what's happening on a television screen."
For non-deaf actors who are just learning sign language "Switched at Birth" offers a new acting challenge: Not only must they memorize spoken dialogue but also the signing that accompanies it.
"Speaking with ASL and vocalizing it is not an easy feat to pull off," Mr. Stupin said. "The syntax of ASL is completely different than the way a sentence is spoken verbally. It's almost as if you're speaking two languages at the same time when you see verbal characters who can sign on the show speaking."
Actress Constance Marie, who plays the bio mom of Bay (but raised Daphne), said the early days of acting on the show were especially challenging.
"I had to be believable because honestly a show where main characters are deaf was only going to get one shot, and I had to make sure I wasn't the thing that made it flawed," she said. "One of the most daunting things is you have these emotional scenes and you're feeling it and not thinking about the words. But if you have to think about the words and your hands and you're crying and then they stop you and say, 'That sign was not right,' and then you have to do it over again."
In next week's all-ASL episode, Carlton's deaf students protest the school board's decision to close the school, taking a page from a real-life protest for a deaf president at Washington, D.C.'s Gallaudet University 25 years ago this month. The show's winter season finale March 11 will resolve the fate of Carlton.
Series creator Lizzy Weiss, who wrote next week's episode, said the show's writers have always toyed with the notion of an all-ASL episode but never proposed it for fear of network executives' reactions. But it was those same executives who suggested the idea to Ms. Weiss.
"It's an experiment," she acknowledged. "We're excited to see what happens."
Ms. Weiss came up with the idea for the series when she was pregnant and heard a public radio story about two women who discovered in their 50s that they were switched at birth. ABC Family wanted to make the show more complex, and Ms. Weiss, who had taken an ASL class her freshman year in college, suggested making one of the girls deaf.
"Because I am not in the [deaf] culture -- I am not the daughter of a deaf person, a parent of, a wife of -- I don't have an agenda," Ms. Weiss said. "My responsibility is to be honest, not be [politically correct]. That's boring. I don't want to be too treacly, I don't want to be too preachy."
For Ms. Matlin, "Switched at Birth" has been a new experience: She's no longer the only deaf person on set as she was in most of her TV and film roles.
"I hate it that I'm not the only one," she said through as ASL interpreter before vocalizing, "I'm just kidding!"
But it has taken some getting used to.
"It's almost like being the only most well-known deaf person in the world, but at this point I'm not anymore, and I don't necessarily want to be the only one acting," she said through an interpreter.
"I used to be able to talk about people [without them knowing], and I can't anymore," she said, laughing. "I love working with every single cast member, but when me and Sean or me and Ryan or me and Katie are in a scene together, it's so natural for me. There's no communication barrier, no trying to figure out what someone intends. It's our natural language and culture."
She sees "Switched at Birth" as a piece of entertainment that's as groundbreaking for TV as "Children of a Lesser God" was for film.
"I thought, all these years of doing television and I've never seen such a phenomenal reception from having a deaf character in a show, not just telling stories about deaf victims but actually deaf story lines looking at the culture and the language," she said. "It's a fascinating aspect you've never seen on television before, combined with good writing and good acting. It's just something I'm really proud to be a part of."
Ms. Matlin said growing up in an era before closed captioning, she often watched action shows like "The Streets of San Francisco" that were easier to understand. She remembers "Three's Company" in the early 1980s as the first show she watched with closed captioning. She credits "Three's Company" star John Ritter with pushing ABC to add closed captioning to its prime-time shows in that era.
"Now everything is in closed captioned, and you guys at the bar and gyms can also understand what's going on," she signed, before smiling to a group of reporters and adding, "You're welcome."
Renewals, ratings, bumps
TBS renewed reality competition "King of the Nerds" for an eight-episode second season to air in early 2014, and TLC ordered a second season of "Breaking Amish" to air in May.
"Archer" will be back for a 13-episode fifth season on FX, and Syfy renewed its drama "Lost Girl" for a 13-episode fourth season to air in 2014.
No renewal announcement yet for Syfy's "Robot Combat League," but it might come if its ratings hold up. The show premiered Friday with 1.3 million viewers and the network's best unscripted series premiere in more than two years among viewers ages 18-49.
And in a precursor to cancellation, The CW announced after two low-rated episodes it will move its midseason drama "Cult" from Tuesday nights to 9 p.m. Friday next week. Reruns of more successful CW series will fill the 9 p.m. Tuesday time slot. Late Thursday The CW announced that "90210" will end this year with its fifth season finale on May 13.
Tuned In online
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Mike & Molly," "King of the Nerds" and "House of Cards." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on PBS's locally produced Mister Rogers flash mob, HBO's "Parade's End," ABC's "Red Widow" and tonight's season finale of "Portlandia." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's podcast includes conversation about the Oscars telecast, "Community" and "Burning Love." Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.