Some afternoon before the Fourth of July, watch Switched! (ABC Family, weekdays at 4:30 ET). It’s a reality show for kids, but the teenagers on the show who swap lives for four days—the Mormon, the milkmaid, the guitarist, the boxer—evoke an American ideal. To a one, they’re intrepid, and the bright particularity of their daily lives is matched by their exhilaration at the prospect of experimenting with other daily lives. If, a year or two from now, Switched! represents the net haul from the reality TV cornucopia, we’ll be doing extremely well.
The premise of Switched! sounds corny, but the details keep it honest. The switched kids live with the other’s family, hang out with the other’s friends, and perform the other’s daily routine. With text messages, they defy one another to try the most taxing part of their lives: sparring, singing, dancing, chopping wood. On one episode, a shopaholic had to milk 200 cows at dawn (she liked it). The milkmaid, in turn, got a gleaming makeover in Beverly Hills (she hated it). In the main, the kids are wide-eyed at the American social panorama. The New York boxer was dazzled by the easy pace of life in Utah. By the end of another show, a cabin-dwelling Coloradan—who turned out to be a good dancer—looked as though she might give up the mountains to join a Destiny’s Child-like band in Los Angeles.
Switched! is cannily cast. The kids are wholesome but clever; they want to work hard and have fun. The show is not meant to be a comedy of errors—no Connecticut Yankees are thrust into King Arthur’s court—but rather a set of graceful parables about various kinds of diversity. But don’t groan—Switched! sets itself well apart from clumsier efforts to sell the American rainbow (Sagwa’s,for instance) in two ways. First, it controls for class—often by switching rural kids who have big houses but lack cool clothes with urban kids who dress well but live in apartments. Second, and above all, each kid has an identity that sets him or her apart from her tribe. The Mormon excels at soccer. A home-schooled kid has a passion for trip-hop. All the teenagers work and play during their four switched days; no one is required to lecture on what it’s like to be Dominican or Native American or a white farmer.
Switched! is on almost every day. Many of the lives on display—like that of a caver who lives with his grandparents in Alabama—are ones that rarely get airtime. Each episode, in any case, underscores just how many ways there are to live in this country. Tapes of it might well belong in a star-spangled box of propaganda for America. Still, just try to resist its charms. It’s enough to get you misty-eyed at the sight of the flag, even if it’s been a long time.