TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  

Switched At Birth: “Yuletide Fortune Tellers”

Christmas stories are traditionally made up of many different things—stories hope, of magic, of family, and of nostalgia for days gone by—but perhaps the best thing about Christmas stories is how they allow for a good dose of unguarded, unimpeachable sap. Earnestness can be a tough thing to swallow in fiction, especially if it feels unearned, with the beat-down cynic that resides in so many of our brains unconsciously thumping a drumbeat blasting the discomfort of naked emotion like the season’s most reliable little drummer boy. But for those that can quiet that cynic—if only for a season—there’s something comforting about Christmas fiction remaining the one place where sap can still exist mostly unopposed. Hallmark Channel has created an entire empire on the public’s appetite for Christmas sap, and now ABC Family is looking to add Christmas episodes of their original programming to the channel’s 25 Days of Christmas tradition. It’s a smart decision in every way; this episode is terrific.

Advertisement

“Yuletide Fortune Tellers” exists in a Switched At Birth land without time. It’s not meant to be a continuation of the show’s story—there’s no mention of the dramatic events of last season’s finale, for example—but it’s more of a story that could have happened during any of the Christmases since the families learned about the switch. This removal from the timeline is a disorienting for all of 30 seconds, then makes perfect sense: This isn’t the continuation of the Switched At Birth story, it’s simply a Switched At Birth story, one that ties into the characters and their emotional journeys disconnected to plot. As someone who would throw every plot in the deepest pit of the ocean if it meant better character work, this is like my own personal Christmas gift, like a throwback to a time where story continuity wasn’t the driving concern of every show. (Also, this is a nice break from having to deal with the insanity that was that last season finale.)

The story of the episode itself isn’t original, but that’s very much the point: like the idea of Christmas nostalgia itself, it’s a comfortable throwback to body-switching stories like Freaky Friday, where two people swap so they can learn an important lesson. The swap is the “in or out?” moment of this episode: Either you’re going to accept that magic garlic knots can cause two sisters to switch bodies, or you’re going to roll your eyes and turn the channel. (Garlic knots are really delicious, though, so I think the transformative properties are pretty legitimate.) What makes the story interesting is what makes Switched At Birth such a rich, textured show in general, as the complex relationships between all of these characters—and the relationship the characters have to Daphne/Bay’s deafness—make everything deeper by association. Daphne waking up to realize she can hear, to be so incredibly excited to know what Kathryn’s voice sounds like, is a lovely character moment and a nice bit of fan service all wrapped up in one. The same goes for Bay’s realization she can’t hear, and watching her experience what Daphne and Emmett deal with every day was a nice touch, if necessarily given a bit of short shrift due to time constraints.

Like in the show’s last alternate universe episode “Ecce Mono,” the main goal of this episode is to show how these two families ended up finding each other exactly when they were supposed to. What’s nice about the twist on it this time is that the lessons learned are almost entirely between the two daughters and the mothers that raised them, instead of their biological mothers. We are so many things as people, but our most defining traits inevitably come from those that raised us, and it’s those shared memories that stitch together to make a family. When the Kennish and Vasquez families come together to have a shared Christmas for the first time ever, it’s those shared memories with the daughters they raised that motivate Kathryn and Regina to butt heads; no one wants to cede territory. But after the switch happens and Daphne and Bay have to figure out how to get back to their “real” lives, it’s not the magic garlic knots that bring them back. It’s their mutual recognition of the importance of the women who raised and loved them.

Advertisement

It’s an emotional moment, sure, but the earnestness and sap don’t really kick in until the show is back to its real universe, the switch explained away by the magic of a mutual dream. It’s here where the families happily combine their traditions—the pancakes of the Kennishes side-by-side with the Chinese food of the Vasquez family—that the true Christmas spirit kicks in. It ends with a lovely family sing along that should be horrifying in its treacle. Instead, it turns into a celebration: of life, of love, and of the combined family the switch created. Merry Christmas indeed.

Stray observations:

  • Carrie Wikis Some Art: Yuletide Fortune Tellers, Mykola Pymonenko, 1888, oil on canvas.
  • Grunge Toby (excuse me, Tobias) is the greatest thing ever. Every single moment where he was hitting on Bay-as-Daphne was excruciatingly hilarious.
  • Of all the things I liked about this episode, I liked Angelo Jr. the most. Can he just suddenly show up next season and be real, like Dawn Summers?
  • Speaking of Angelo Jr., did they ever say where Angelo Sr. was in this alternate universe? Was he dead, or just gone? It was really nice to see Angelo in the home video, and it was especially nice to see Bay’s reaction to the video. Vanessa Marano was wonderful in that moment.

Advertisement


The Fosters: “Christmas Past”

Unlike Switched At Birth, The Fosters takes a different approach to their Christmas episode. This is very much a continuation of what came before, picking up right with Brandon and Callie’s ill-fated kiss from last season’s finale, and then somewhat clumsily flashing back to the Christmas before all of the drama. In theory, it’s as elegant a solution as any to solve the problem of how to fit a Christmas-themed episode into the middle of an ongoing narrative without going full-on supernatural or alternate universe like Switched At Birth did, but in execution it feels awkward, with the bookends in the current time feeling completely separate from the flashback itself.

Advertisement

The result isn’t a bad episode, but one that feels a bit unmoored, like it was an episode shelved by the network for some reason and then later aired out of order. By going back to a time after Callie found out she wasn’t able to be adopted alongside Jude but before her biological father’s refusal to sign over his parental rights, it leads to a lot of revisiting: Of stories, of character arcs, and of emotional beats. The Callie of “Christmas Past” still feels like the same ill-fitting outsider, her relationship with Brandon still in that messy space between brother and boyfriend. The episode does do a decent job of mirroring the confusion they both feel and the delicate balance of their relationship, both past and present.

The bulk of the episode actually belongs to Stef, Lena, and Stef’s mother Sharon, as they navigate the complications of Christmas and family. Stef and Sharon are dealing with their first Christmas since Stef’s father died, which is further complicated when Stef learns that he had a generous money market account that he still had in Sharon’s name in the will. This sets off a chain of events where Stef is worried about money, worried about how Sharon will fritter away all of the money that Stef feels she could make better use of for her own family, and eventually leads to an awful, uncomfortable argument between the two at Christmas dinner. Everything turned out happy in the end—it was all a misunderstanding based on old assumptions and prejudices—but it does make for a rather unpleasant family dinner.

The brightest moment of the episode unsurprisingly belongs to Lena and Jude. The revelation that Lena has a white half-brother, a sibling from her father’s first marriage—note the very oblique way the show implied he had said negative racial things about Lena’s mother in the past—is an interesting one, and something that essentially justifies the existence of this episode on its own. When Lena angrily tells Stef half siblings aren’t as “real” as full siblings and Jude overhears, it leads to a wonderful mother-son conversation where a wise Jude helps Lena see that her and her brother are far more alike than she realized. It’s moments like these where The Fosters is at its strongest, no matter what less interesting things happen around the margins.

Advertisement

Stray observations:

  • So the implication that Callie’s sister Sophia attempted suicide in last season’s finale seems to be on track, as this episode ends back in the present with an ambulance arriving at the party.
  • The impulse to give everyone a story is a noble one, but Daphne’s story with her daughter Tasha might have been better placed somewhere else where it could have been developed a bit better.
  • Were Jesus and Mariana’s “foster kid” Christmas gifts really from Anna?

Advertisement