Ever since “The Fosters” premiered on ABC Family (now known as Freeform) back in June 2013, it has been making headlines for its willingness to take on some highly relevant and often controversial societal issues. While the show is geared towards teens, it also has a sizable adult audience, due to its intelligent take on these issues by its cast members.
Take, for example, the central thesis of “The Fosters” – that a lesbian biracial couple has created a family that now includes one biological and four adopted children. As the two creators of the show (Bradley Bredeweg, Peter Paige) have pointed out, there were plenty of TV shows that have tried to take on the topic of two gay fathers raising children together, but “The Fosters” breaks new ground entirely by taking on the topic of two gay mothers.
The topic was so controversial, in fact, that ABC Family almost passed on the show, as did every other TV network. Finally, it was the involvement of global celebrity Jennifer Lopez who made the show happen. It turns out that her mother’s older sister was gay. Moreover, this relative faced a significant amount of exclusion and persecution as a result of this, so Jennifer Lopez knew this show had to be made. With her involvement, “The Fosters” has been able to take an unflinching look at LGBT issues.
In this case, the LGBT themes are brought to life by Stef Foster (played by Teri Polo) and Lena Adams (played by Sherri Saum). Stef is a police officer while Lena is a vice principal at a high school. What makes this pairing all the more unlikely is that Stef’s ex-husband (Mike Foster, played by Danny Nucci) is also her patrol partner. That brings the whole issue of LGBT marriage into a realm you might not expect to find it: within a suburban police department.
As Entertainment Weekly pointed out, “A lesbian, biracial couple on a family TV show is a big deal.” In many ways, “The Fosters” has been willing to push this LGBT theme further than anyone else. In one episode, for example, Lena tries to have her first biological baby, but has a miscarriage instead. Other episodes have dealt with the difficult topic of what it means to be a transgender teenager. And, in yet another episode, Jude (played by Hayden Byerly) begins to question his sexual orientation.
The multi-ethnic blended family
Today’s America is far from being white and homogenous, and the two creators of the show wanted to bring this topic front and center in “The Fosters.” In the middle of suburban San Diego (where the show is set), you have a biracial couple, a white biological son (Brandon, played by David Lambert), two Hispanic adopted twins (Jesus and Mariana, played by Noah Centineo and Cierra Ramirez), and two children adopted from a foster home (Callie and Jude, played by Maia Mitchell and Hayden Byerly).
Sherri Saum, the actress who plays Lena Adams, is herself from a biracial couple: her mother was German and her father was African-American. So that lends yet another dimension to this theme – and also made the show a tough sell with top TV executives. In the world of TV, what matters is creating a show that appeals to certain demographics, and the concern was that a show that didn’t cater specifically to a white, black, or Hispanic audience might not garner any of these audiences.
What makes the show work, though, is not just casting certain characters from blended racial identities – it’s exploring what happens when those racial identities live within the same household. In this regard, San Diego becomes a perfect place to watch issues of racial identity play out on the TV screen. We are literally watching a discussion of race in America play out in front of us.
Adoption and foster care
There have been other TV shows that have taken on the theme of adoption before, but none that involved adoption by a lesbian couple. That’s what led to some critical outcries from conservative social groups, which felt that “The Fosters” was deliberately trying to explode popular notions of family. Even worse, the critics said, the show was trying to blur what adoption means by constantly taking the issue one step further: the adoption of Jesus and Mariana was soon followed up by a more unconventional adoption of Callie and Jude.
Where “The Fosters” really excels is showing viewers what happens when different social strata collide. Callie and Jude, for example, are from abusive homes, and some of the storylines involving them have been dark. Jesus and Mariana, too, have unsettled histories. In one storyline, Jesus tries to spend time with his biological mother, who has an abusive boyfriend who also happens to be a drug addict. That leads to some dramatic scenes involving Stef, in which she must take on this person face-to-face (with tragic consequences).
As part of another storyline, Brandon (the biological son) develops a huge crush and infatuation on Callie (an adopted daughter). This raises a whole number of other issues, including the permissibility of love between two family members who are not related by blood, but related by family ties.
As part of the adoption and foster care theme, the show takes on the whole foster care system, basing it around Girls United, a group home for troubled girls. In fact, one could argue that the whole title of the show – “The Fosters” – is an attempt to bring foster care into much greater prominence.
The covering of these three themes – LGBT issues, blended family issues and adoption and foster care issues – by “The Fosters” is what makes the show so powerful. For teens growing up uncertain about what it means to live in a “modern American family,” this show can be riveting TV.
What’s clear is that twenty-first century America looks very different than even the America of the 1980s or 1990s – a theme that the show’s producers aren’t afraid to take on any longer. “The Fosters” is nearing the end of a successful Season 4, and in the period from 2013-2016, has helped to shed light on some vitally important societal issues. If you buy a cable television bundle from XFINITY, you can watch The Fosters every week on Freeform.