Despite still bearing an endless grudge against ABCFamily for their cancellation of The Middleman, and being forever wary of some of their core programming (The Secret Life of the American Teenager is a fever dream from which we'll never wake!), I was intrigued when the network announced The Fosters for its summer lineup; the drama would focus on a two-mom multicultural family including biological, adopted, and foster children. That’s it. That’s the show.
Except The Fosters is doing some interesting work! Let's talk about it.
So, a rundown of the family. Stef is a cop; she used to be married to Mike, but left him. They have one biological son, Brandon. Stef married school vice-principal Lena! (Well, "married," there's nothing legal yet for obvious reasons, since they're based in California.) Lena and Stef fostered, and later adopted, twins Mariana and Jesus. And in the pilot, they bring Callie and her little brother Jules out of a bad situation and foster them for the foreseeable future.
It's a lot of people in a not-huge fake house! Group scenes are chaos!
The show definitely had some easy fallbacks with that premise. But so far it hasn't really taken them, despite teeming subplots. Stef's initially set up as the Gruff One, but is the first to champion Callie and Jude's long-term stay in the house. Lena's the Kind One, except by the second episode she's giving Mike his marching orders for questioning her parental purview. They're clearly a compatible couple, but this is also a family realistic enough to know that it has to work at being happy.
Luckily, these are often small, everyday hiccups that create tension without sacrificing all character for the theme. When Callie arrives, she takes in the scene ("So you're dykes?" After a moment, Jesus says, "They prefer the term 'people,' but yeah, they're gay"), and IDs Brandon as "the real son." That's not the case, but it stings, and it shows. At the same time, Callie's defensive posturing is clearly born of foster homes where hierarchy was everything, and a lot of her arc so far has been trying to trust Stef and Lena (even when they're struggling to trust her).
The Fosters has the plot-churning abandon of a show that figures it might never get a second season – we've already had a couple get together AND break up, another couple break up, a stalker appear on the horizon, an armed standoff, and a pregnancy scare. And that urgency is fair, because ABC Family. Still, they've managed to cram in a lot of unexpected character beats in between drug-search subplots:
- Tension between Stef, Lena, and Mike about his involvement in Brandon's life.
- Discussions of differences between racial and cultural heritage (brought up by Lena's mom when they throw Mariana a Quinceañera).
- Mariana getting momentarily embarrassed about her family when faced with traditional pressures (see above), then being wracked with guilt about it.
- Lena and her mother discussing light-skin privilege within the African-American community.
- Ambivalence in adopted siblings about maintaining contact with birth mothers.
- The morning-after pill that Stef ends up giving Jesus's girlfriend Lexi without telling her conservative family, because it's taken as read that no one should have to worry about a baby they don't want.
- Stef facing off with her religious dad, who doesn't get why she "chose" to be gay; she argues he threw religion at the problem without ever asking her about it, and also nope forever, Dad.
- Stef being concerned about Jesus going to Bible camp with Lexi; when Lexi's conservative parents come over to discuss dating rules, and Stef's father pushes religion, Stef admits her misgivings about church teachings. Lexi's parents assure her there will be nothing of the sort, and Stef's dad asks how they can be religious AND supportive of a gay family. Lexi's mom: "We all pick and choose," and uses the old swap-my-daughter-for-a-goat example. Lexi's dad: "What's more Christian than family?" Eat crow, Stef's dad.
- Gender presentation, when Jude (who'd been in trouble in their last house for trying on women's clothes) gets his nails painted by a supportive Mariana. Callie, loving but concerned, tells him not to wear it or he'll get bullied. He does, and he does. At home, Lena tells him that sometimes she and Stef don't act like a couple in new places, and that's sometimes a safe thing because people can be hateful, but hiding who you are can be hard on you. She draws no conclusions for him; he opts to keep the polish.
(Yes, this shot is also in the kitchen. Every promo shot is in the kitchen. You can't fit more than two people in any room but the kitchen. So many scenes in this show are of people snacking or drinking juice or making salad or setting the table, just for an excuse to be in the kitchen. Everyone grab a string cheese, there's a plot reveal!)
Because this is an ABC Family show, much of this is not subtle; there's a commercial in the pilot suggesting that You, Too, Can Be a Foster Parent!, and it has that channel's tendency to occasionally default to hyper-efficient dialogue to power through a plot point. (If you cannot handle a show where once a week someone says something like, "I am very angry with you even though I understand your reasons!", then maybe make peace with that before you start watching this show, because it's full of goodhearted people who are super, super into naming their feelings.)
At the same time, the show has no problem showing how teenagers do thoughtless, hurtful things and might be unable to fully handle the consequences. (Callie's getting overtures from a guy with every emotional-abuse red flag in the book, Brandon seems to think it's fine to tell Callie his feelings for her despite fraternization rules he's well aware of, and Mariana is generally a mess right now.) Things aren't always clean, and in the last episode things have gotten pretty dark. On her way out of a party, Callie spots Brandon's ex, who 's drunk and getting some male attention Callie reads as dangerous. Talia insists it's no problem, despite Callie's repeated offers to walk her home; Callie looks concerned, but goes; it's just as uncomfortable as it should be.
Not that things never get treacly, because they definitely do, whether in painful teen earnestness or awkward teen acting or too-quick spouse resolutions or the "topical" hashtags ABC Family insists on slapping over big scenes (oh, how I hope those trending tags don't factor into its renewal). So, basically, this is still a show on a second-tier cable network, working through early-first-season jitters, flinging so many plots at you that things could veer off the rails even before midseason, and fighting the preconception that it's the Lesbian Gimmick Show. And it's often hard to recommend a show with a lot fewer sharp edges than current Great Television. But it's also doing its best to be socially aware in ways that feel necessary and natural, and is working hard to find a balance between cloying and forthright. It will probably get there; if you're interested, and can handle a little teen puppy-eyes and a lot of scenes of people making salad in the house's only group-scene room, it's worth catching up on.