Real occurence is subject of flawed TV docudrama


April 28, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

After "Oprah!", People magazine, the tabloids' coverage and Spy magazine's takeoff, it is almost a cliche now: "Switched at Birth."

It's "that" story about the two couples who each had a daughter in a Florida hospital in 1978 and to whom one of parenting's worst nightmares actually happened: The babies were switched.

The story began playing out in the media from coast to coast in 1988 when one set of parents -- the Twiggs -- found out through genetic testing at Johns Hopkins Hospital that they were not the biological parents of Arlena, the child they had been raising for 10 years. A Baltimore attorney helped them determine the truth about their biological daughter and file a lawsuit -- still pending -- against the hospital involved in the mix-up. That real-life search made for an emotional saga that continues today.

And now, much of the fear, suffering and love of that tale surface in a two-part docudrama -- starting at 9 tonight on WMAR-TV (Channel 2) -- which NBC is using to get a head start on its month of "sweeps" programming.

First, the good news about "Switched at Birth": Actress Bonnie Bedelia plays the dickens out of Regina Twigg, the woman who raised Arlena, but who is the biological mother of Kimberly Mays. It's Bedelia's show, really, as she turns in a tour-de-force performance.

Bedelia's Twigg is also noteworthy because commercial television so infrequently focuses on working-class women, who do not work outside the home and who are portrayed as neither saints nor as drudges. Here, Regina Twigg is a multifaceted and memorable creation, with nicks in her character and some bright edges, too, thanks to Bedelia's work.

Brian Kerwin also delivers an impressive performance as Bob Mays, who raised Kimberly. Kerwin's work here is not as on-the- money, low-key perfect as it was in "Murphy's Romance." You can see him reach and come up empty a few times.

But he's the yin to Bedelia's yang, and his performance is strong enough to keep the emotional teeter-totter going as the four-hour story alternates between the Mays' and Twiggs' worlds.

It's a good thing that Bedelia and Kerwin are so good, because the bad news, in part, is that there are really only two or three hours of material here stretched to four. In the new world of network cost-cutting, what we have is NBC trying to feed four with a steak large enough for just two.

The result is not that the film is boring or terribly slow, but that it lacks a tight focus and, therefore, one, great, knockout emotional punch.

So much history is given -- as the film wanders down what seems like every path the lives of these two families took in 10 years -- that the discovery of the switched babies doesn't begin until Monday night's finale.

In tonight's installment, we go through happy moments in each of the families' lives; then the long and painful death from ovarian cancer of Barbara Mays (the biological mother of Arlena); Bob Mays' confusion and grief; and, most of all, the illness and death of Arlena at age 10 from a heart defect she was born with.

The death of this child could have been one of the most powerful scenes of the TV season. But because the viewer has been down so many emotional side streets by the time it comes, a numbing has set in.

In addition, because "Switch at Birth" is a docudrama, it goes for the gut again and again; in so doing, it takes liberties with the facts. For example, some Baltimore viewers might wonder what happened to the local attorney, Marvin Ellin, who represented the Twiggs. In the film, the lawyer is a woman from Philadelphia.

Michael O'Hara, the show's producer, said that there's no Ellin because he chose to use two composites for all the lawyers involved in the case. Translation: The lawyers, including the likable attorney played by Ed Asner, are make-believe.

So, be careful with your emotions as you watch. The main emotion this film taps is fear -- not just a parent's fear of losing a child, but also a vague fear that many of us have living in an increasingly depersonalized America -- where the hometown sense of trust and community rarely exists.

We have moved in our lifetimes from a concept of trust based on familiarity in Hometown America to one of assumed contractual obligation based on threat of lawsuit in Mobile America. We hope the stranger we paid to fix our brakes really did fix them. We hope the stranger in the hospital whites taking our baby from us is worthy of that trust.

"Switched at Birth" offers no answers about how the switc happened -- though in its defense, no real-life answers have emerged. The filmmakers, of course, could have waited to see if ongoing investigations yielded such answers instead of rushing the story to the screen.

The great question about "Switched at Birth" is whether it engages our fear and makes us more capable of dealing with it, or whether the film simply exploits the fear and leaves us more rattled than ever -- once we've been counted by Nielsen.

That is something each viewer probably best decides fohimself. Personally, I view it as the latter.

This is a certainty, though: Millions of parents will turn off the television set tonight and look in on their sleeping children with a set of powerful feelings aroused by watching "Switched at Birth" -- and they won't know which feelings are based on something that really happened, and which are based on things a dramatist made up.

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