'Switched at Birth' Boss on "Frustrating" 15-Month Delay, Shortened Final Season

Creator Lizzy Weiss also discusses the series' 10-month time jump onscreen and the "emotional" 100th episode.
Courtesy of Freeform; Rodrigo Vaz/FilmMagic

When Switched at Birth returns Tuesday, the Freeform drama kicks off its fifth and final season with a 10-month time jump, first hinted at in the closing moments of season four. Although 10 months might seem like a long stretch, it's nothing compared to the 15 months that have passed since the series was last on the air.

"It was definitely frustrating," creator and showrunner Lizzy Weiss tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It was a lot longer than we anticipated."

Originally eyed for a March 2016 return, the series was delayed multiple times in the midst of ABC Family's transformation into the "becomer"-centered Freeform. However, the series still made headlines in March when Weiss took to Twitter to announce the fifth season would be the show's last. In addition to the lengthy hiatus, the family drama also returns for its shortest season ever, containing just 10 episodes (including the milestone 100th episode) – less than half of each previous season.

Despite this, Weiss and the writers are still looking to make some headlines with the final season. After tackling audism, racism and sexual consent, among other important issues, season five will examine college race relations and depression, before the Kennish and Vasquez families bid adieu in April.

Ahead of the final season premiere, Weiss spoke with THR about that long delay, the "emotional" 100th episode and why she turned down a proposed two-hour finale.

The show has been off for more than a year so what was it like waiting for the final season to get a premiere date and get on the air?

Well, to be honest, it was definitely frustrating. It was a lot longer than we anticipated and we were bummed for the fans that they had to wait so long in between seasons. Honestly, it feels like in the history of television, I don't know if fans have ever waited over 15 months between seasons, but it does feel like our fans are pretty fervent and they've been waiting. I think the trick is to make sure they know. The challenge is that people reach out to me all the time on social media who are outside the core quote demo and they are older so it makes me think, 'Well, if they're reaching out to me and saying they love the show and they're anxiously waiting for it to come back, then maybe there are a lot of other people in that demo who aren't on social media, who aren’t aware.' But we just are going to cross our fingers and hope that if they don't find it exactly on January 31st then they’ll find it three days later or three weeks later or three months later on Netflix, I don't know. The hope is just that they find it at some point because they've waited a long time and it’s the last 10 episodes of a very long five-year journey.

Going back further, the series was renewed for season five back in October 2015 but it wasn't announced as the final season until the following March. Internally, did you know from the get-go that season five would be the last? What were those conversations like with the network?

I think there was a feeling that we were nearing the end of the run. I thought we might get 20 episodes. There was indication that we might get another 10 so we had a plan for a back 10. Then we were told right around the 100th episode that it was going to be the end, so we had to sort of round out the edges a little bit quicker than I anticipated. [It was] a little bit of a surprise, not a complete dead shock — 100 episodes is really a long time for any show and I really don't like to repeat myself. There was getting to be a point in the room where almost every week, stories would be pitched and I would say, "We did a version of that, I don't want to do that again." So on that hand, I'm glad that we're going out strong. We always found ways to really push buttons and bring up things that were in the zeitgeist. This season we dealt with race relations on campus and I was really nervous when we were pushed six months and then nine months and then 12 months that someone would get to it first but no one has. No one has done this story, no one has talked about race relations on campus.

How concerned were you that this issue might feel dated by the time the show debuted because of the delay?

Unfortunately, there was zero concern of mine that race would be an outdated issue. As I said, I was concerned that this specific story, which was inspired by the University of Missouri football players going on strike, which happened in the fall of 2015 when our writers were convening for the season, that that might specifically have been played out. But…we knew that race is always an issue and unfortunately, it's not really getting better so we were assured in a depressing way that it would still be on top of mind for a lot of viewers, a lot of young viewers in particular.

You said the delay was originally supposed to be six months, then it became nine months, then it was pushed until January 2017. What was the explanation given, or your understanding of the reasoning, for keeping the show off the air?

The network made some choices behind the scenes that I can only speculate on privately. I don't know what their reasons were, they had other shows they wanted to premiere first and I think there was a feeling that January was a better time than the fall. There's a lot of competition with network shows in the fall, and that way we'd be promoted over the 25 days of Christmas so that would be a good time to come on right after that. Once we knew that spring and then summer wasn't going to happen —that area was taken over by their new shows — we just decided, "OK, well, let's jump onboard to January and hope it isn't as a competitive as it would have been in the fall."

You mentioned planning for an additional 10-episode order that never came. How big of an adjustment did you have to make?

We figured it out. I mean the network was kind enough to offer me either a 90-minute or a two-hour finale. I chose the 90-minute; I felt like a two-hour would have been flabby and really strange. Compared to a 44-minute episode, double that would have felt odd but I felt like that extra half-hour kind of gave us time to really give a sendoff to every important character. I think it worked out OK. We had a few weeks. It was a little faster than I had hoped but it wasn't like we had to screech on the brakes and do a 180 or anything.

You open with a 10-month time jump that you first set up at the end of season four, which is a significant leap for college-age characters. How much did that help you refresh the stories and explore new territory on the show?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, of course there was conversation about jumping even more, about taking a bigger time jump. PLL did that and I think we felt like another show on the network is doing that to great success, let's do something a little bit different. The network was really supportive of, this is a show about college, we haven't run all the juice out of college yet. Why are we leaving college? We had talked about pushing past it, but… there's a lot going on on college campuses. We'd done the sexual assault story the year before, I think to great success, in terms of starting a conversation and so let's roll up our sleeves and get excited about what's happening on college campuses and that's what led to the race story. It was like the second week in the room. It started on ESPN, this little story about this team that was doing this, and I think within 48 hours, it was on the front page because they had succeeded. They had succeeded in pressuring the university president to resign in a way that I found extraordinary, I couldn't believe that they were so successful, and I was inspired by student activism. It was kids getting together and doing something, and it working — what an incredible story. You don't really get that too often.… Here is a story in which we could really tell and really encourage kids watching to get involved: "Get involved, it works." I was excited about that.

Since they're still in college when the show comes back, why did you feel it was important to do a time jump in the first place?

Well, we did want to shake things up a little bit. We really took care with each of our main characters to think about, "OK, what is worthy of that time jump? Where are they? Are they in a new relationship, a new job, a new head space?" A lot of us had traveled in college and gone abroad for a semester, and we wanted to make a similar kind of story about what does going abroad for the first time as a young person mean to you? When you're over there and when you come back, how quickly does it dissipate? And you forget all the things that you learned and the different way you were seeing yourself as an American. And of course, there were relationships we wanted to have fun with, and triangles, and love stories in that way. If you're 20 years old, what does that time apart do to feelings at the age?

You have the 100th episode coming up this season. What did you do to mark that moment?

Gilles Marini, who plays Angelo, returns and of course he's passed away. We always had talked about bringing Angelo back and it just felt like the 100th episode was a great time to really look within to the family, the core family — he's the fourth parent — just to bring him back. His death had been such an incredibly emotional episode, such a turning point for the girls so that was really, really touching and I'm really excited about that episode and Lea Thompson directed it. We chose to have her do that episode so it feels personal and intimate. Whenever one of your own actors directs, it just feels really special on set. To have such an emotional episode in which the girls revisit with Angelo in sort of a surprising, sad way was really cool.

Looking at the 10 episodes overall, what would you say the theme is?

The race story is really front and center for the first half, and then we kind of move on from it. But as I said, I do like to take on interesting things. But then, as I said, we moved on to the last five episodes of rounding the corner and giving everyone a sendoff so that's the second path: Where are they going and how far have they come since we met them in the pilot five years ago?

The new season touches on depression as well. What inspired you to tackle that on the show?

We had all had friends, I certainly did, who had had sudden changes at that age, so again, being really honest to being 19, 20 — that is a time where people who exhibit mental illness, depression, their bodies change, that's when it manifests itself. And you don't know what's happening, your friends don't know what happening. And I can't remember seeing that dealt with with a young person, which is what's going on and how do you have conversations about it when it really changes a character's personality and point of view until they get help. So that was just a really surprising way to really have that conversation about what happens. Because everyone ins the room pretty much knew someone in college who changed and then got help, meds, therapy, and managed it. There's been so much great conversation — Sarah Silverman, Kristen Bell, a lot of people have come out and said, "I have depression, and this is what it looks like. It looks like a smiling actress; it doesn't look like what you think it does but I struggle with it behind the scenes." We just thought it was a way of participating in that conversation with one of our characters.

Given all of the issues that you've touched on over the years and given what's happened in the country in the last year, is there any particular issue you wish you had been able to tackle?

No, not exactly. I felt confident that if we had been given that last 10, we would have found another great stimulating conversation to talk about. It always happened in the room, it's the process of the room which is just so exciting.… Anything else that I have, I'll have to put it into another show.

 Switched at Birth airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Freeform.

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