‘The Fosters,’ an ABC Family drama, pushes the envelope further
Elbow to elbow around a kitchen island, a family dinner is unfolding.
One teen is thumbing around on her phone; another is dousing his dinner in ketchup; the other two are talking music and dubbing their teacher Grim Reaper. The parents, meanwhile, are dancing around the issue of a former significant other’s popping into town.
Just run-of-the-mill family stuff being filmed on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.
But in ABC Family’s newest drama, “The Fosters,” few things are run-of-the-mill in narrative construct. The parents are a biracial lesbian couple and their brood is made up of biological, adoptive and foster children. The series underlines the basic cable network’s tag line: “A New Kind of Family.”
The modern family has always been a Rubik’s cube puzzle for TV programmers who must somehow appeal to youngsters without alienating parents. Most scripted shows built around the family hew to traditional formulas, but some networks have stretched limits with divorced parents (“Who’s the Boss?,” “Mad Men”), adoptive children (“Diff’rent Strokes,” “Life Unexpected,” “Parenthood”) and gay parents (“Modern Family,” “The New Normal”).
“The Fosters,” which boasts celebrity heavyweight Jennifer Lopez as an executive producer, is walking the road paved by such predecessors and like them has drawn criticism from socially conservative groups that disapprove of alternative families. That’s when you know things are working, Lopez says.
“TV has always been on the cutting edge and always pushed the envelope of what’s going on in society,” she said in a phone interview an hour before she would live-tweet the show’s premiere earlier this month. “We are pushing those boundaries and saying, ‘Hey, this is the society we’re living in and we all have to take notice of that.’”
The creation comes from Brad Bredeweg and Peter Paige, whose previous main producing credit was 2010’s short-lived, critically panned flight attendant-centered reality series “Fly Girls” on the CW.
“There are so many cop shows, so many medical shows, so many legal shows,” said Paige, who starred in Showtime’s “Queer as Folk.” “There are very few family dramas, in particular nontraditional family dramas. I look around me and that’s what I see: people — lesbian, gay, straight, everyone — who are divorced or remarried or single and raising kids.”
“The Fosters” centers on a San Diego-based family: Teri Polo (“Meet the Parents”) and Sherri Saum star as Stef Foster and Lena Adams, the couple whose family includes Stef’s biological son (David Lambert) from a former marriage, adopted twins (Cierra Ramirez, Jake T. Austin) and a newly arrived teen foster child (Maia Mitchell) — along with her younger brother — whose past has left her guarded.
“When you say it out loud, it sounds like a lot to take in,” Bredeweg said.
“But it’s a real thing,” Paige added. “And when you talk about a family created by two women, you have to look at how they did it. We talked about all the possible ways that a lesbian couple might have acquired children.”
Paige, who serves on the board of directors of L.A.'s Gay & Lesbian Center, was well acquainted with diverse families. In 2010, he became personally aware of the foster system when the center received a multimillion-dollar federal grant to develop the nation’s first protocol for LGBT children in foster care. (A foster-system expert consults with the show to maintain accuracy.)
“When you put something in somebody’s living room on TV, it immediately makes it more accessible — be it a black president, a gay man and straight women that are friends, or a two-mom family or a family made up of adoptive and foster kids — it just makes it more real and understandable,” said Kate Juergens, head of programming for the network. It’s a premise that hits close to home for Juergens — her sister is a foster mom.
Saum admitted she was surprised that Disney-owned ABC Family turned out to be the network willing to tackle the show’s sensitive themes, which have included secret meetings with biological parents, pill selling at school and parental boundaries. But, she quickly notes, the show still fits well on the network schedule.
“Obviously, it’s still ABC Family, it’s not Showtime or HBO,” said Saum. “It’s still incredibly fearless.”
Mitchell, who plays foster teen Callie, said she was pleased to find a young character with so much depth.
“Understanding the immense emotion that comes with being a foster kid is incredibly challenging,” said the 19-year-old actress, who drew upon a relative’s experience in the foster system. “Some kids have amazing foster parents, like the parents on the show. Then there’s the other side of that — and what Callie is familiar with, which is kids whose foster parents keep them for the money or treat them poorly. They are thrust into these situations and sometimes have to be totally independent.”
Even before the show was officially picked up by ABC Family in 2012, One Million Moms, an offshoot of the socially conservative American Family Assn., spearheaded a drive to quash it. “Obviously, ABC has lost their minds,” the organization wrote on its website during the campaign. “While foster care and adoption is a wonderful thing and the Bible does teach us to help orphans, this program is attempting to redefine marriage and family by having two moms raise these children together.”
That sort of negative reaction to the show still can get cast members charged up. During a recent day on the set, Polo talked about the first time she had to share a kiss with Saum.
“Someone said that we were so brave,” she said. “There was a part of me that — it’s not that I was offended, I guess I was sad that it was considered brave because when I go onto a set and am introduced to a man that will play my love interest, I’m not brave for kissing him.”
“I had a lot of people ask me, ‘How did you prepare to play a lesbian?’” Saum chimed in. “That kind of sat strangely with me. I just started with love. I didn’t do research to be a lesbian or to be a parent to a certain type of child — biological, adoptive or foster. I just grounded it with love and compassion and heart.”
The show has been a hit on social media and, more important, on the network. The show saw double-digit growth in its second week, up 20% in total viewers with 1.7 million, and up 36% among its target demo of viewers ages 12 to 34, from its June 3 premiere — outpacing its lead-in “Switched at Birth,” a program about the gulf between the hearing and deaf communities.
Big numbers are less important than just enough numbers to keep it alive — at least, that’s what the creators are saying now.
“A lot of people have horses in this race,” Paige said. “We’re doing what we’re doing for those that don’t often see themselves in what they’re watching. The best thing that can happen is just keeping this show on the air.”
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