IT IS AT ONCE one of a parent's worst and most ludicrous nightmares -- that the baby they brought home from the hospital did not belong to them; that in a mix-up someone else had taken their child.
It's a silly enough idea that a famed episode of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" made fun of it. Indeed, if you had approached a Hollywood studio with such a story, it would probably be envisioned as a madcap comedy.
But it actually happened to two Florida families with ramifications that made it an exquisite and poignant tragedy. Never could such a tale have been scripted from fiction; it requires the anchor of its veracity to keep from being dismissed as lightweight and frivolous.
It was in 1988 that the story of the fateful, brief intersection in a Florida hospital of the lives of two families, the Twiggs and the Mays, first came to light. That story -- which actually broke in Baltimore because the decisive genetic testing was performed at Johns Hopkins -- became well-known through extensive press coverage and sensational tabloid exploitation.
Inevitably, it comes to television in a miniseries. NBC's four-hour "Switched at Birth" is the big hitter of the first weekend of the May sweep month. It airs Sunday night at 9 o'clock on Channel 2 (WMAR), continuing Monday at that time. Bonnie Bedelia and Brian Kerwin are the stars.
It would be one thing if on a December day in 1978 at the small Hardee Memorial Hospital in rural Florida two healthy babies from two average families had been mixed up. If that had been discovered a decade later and the parties involved had tried to figure out what to do about it, the story would have been fascinating enough.
But consider that Bob and Barbara Mays had spent almost a decade trying to have a baby before she gave birth to Kimberly on Nov. 29, 1978. And that Ernest and Regina Twigg were the head of a completely child-centered household that already had four girls growing up when Arlena was born on Dec. 2 of that year. They would later add three more boys.
Compound that with the fact that as they prepared to take PTC Arlena home from the hospital, the Twiggs were told that she had a serious heart defect, much like the problem that killed their previous child, a daughter who died at seven weeks.
The Mayses left with a healthy little girl, but less than three years later, Barbara died from ovarian cancer, leaving Kimberly as the only family in Bob's life.
After almost a decade of caring for a sick, sweet little girl -- including a move to Pennsylvania to be near top hospitals -- the Twiggs learn from blood tests performed as Arlena is being prepared for a crucial operation that they cannot be her parents. The genetic testing at Hopkins confirms this. Arlena dies after the operation, never knowing of the hospital's mistake.
So, after his own decade of raising Kimberly -- well-played by Ariana Richards -- as the centerpiece of his life, Bob finds out that another couple is claiming that the girl is their daughter and perhaps want her to replace the one they have just lost. Both families then approach the battle armed with attorneys, played by Caroline McWilliams and Ed Asner.
To properly tell a story like this in dramatic form, you just try to stay out of the way, and that's what writer Michael O'Hara and director Waris Hussein accomplish with "Switched at Birth."
Moreover, to its credit, "Switched at Birth" is not set on some lofty, abstract plane, but anchored firmly in bedrock America.
This comes across most effectively in Sunday's Part 1. Bedelia gives Regina Twigg a wholesome motherly glow, effectively supported by John Jackson's taciturn-but-caring reading of her husband, Ernest. Kerwin turns in a consistent performance, his Bob Mays an almost befuddled character, wide-eyed with amazement at what is happening to his life but with a core of goodness and competence.
The first two hours chronicle their parallel lives as the two families raise their daughters. First you suffer with Mays as he endures the death of his wife. The episode ends as the Twiggs learn that it would have been impossible for them to have been the parents of Arlena, and then with her death. The emotions raised by Bedelia's portrayal of Regina's reaction to losing this sweet little girl come not from manipulative melodrama but from genuine heart-rending anguish.
Unfortunately, Part 2 is not as compelling, not because it is any less well acted or produced, but because the events themselves take on an unsatisfying cast. You hope that the bedrock values you saw depicted in Part 1 will indeed produce the wisdom of Solomon. But, Hollywood didn't get to write the story, so it doesn't get to write the ending either.
"Switched at Birth
*** The based-on-fact four-hour miniseries about the couples who took home each other's baby girl from a Florida hospital in 1978. The mistake was discovered 10 years later in tests at Johns Hopkins.
CAST: Bonnie Bedelia, Brian Kerwin
TIME: Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m.
CHANNEL: NBC Channel 2 (WMAR)