In a television landscape that increasingly focuses on diversity, ABC Family’s The Fosters has set the gold standard for inclusive storytelling. Unlike the flashier, progressive-minded Orange is The New Black, The Fosters has fallen under most viewers’ radars, failing to garner the attention and rack up the accolades it so deserves.
The Fosters tells the story of a family named, yes, the Fosters, who just happen to be, yes, that’s right, a foster family. It’s a little gimmicky, admitted, but hand to heart, the title is where the gimmicks end. The family is led by its two matriarchs: Stef (Teri Polo), a police officer, and Lena (Sheri Saum), a high school vice principal. At the onset, Stef and Lena are raising Stef’s biological son, high school upperclassman Brandon (David Lambert) and adopted teen twins Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) and Jesus (Jake T. Austin). During the pilot, Stef and Lena take in troubled juvenile delinquent teenager Callie (Maia Mitchell) as a foster child, and soon after that, her middle-school-aged brother Jude (Hayden Byerly).
The Fosters are a multiracial blended family parented by an interracial lesbian couple. In other words, it’s not the kind of family you typically see on television. And because this isn’t the kind of family you typically see, these characters form relationships and generate stories that are similarly TV atypical. Of course, this is a drama about teenagers and their parents, so you get your fair share of sex, drugs, and lying to mom (or in the Fosters’ case, your moms). Still, because of this show’s commitment to inclusivity, they’ve afforded themselves the opportunity to tell stories I’ve never seen on television before. One of the most affecting episodes of the first season is when Stef and Lena (a white and a black woman, respectively) throw their adopted Latina daughter Mariana a quinceañera. Mariana wants to participate in the traditional father-daughter dance at her quinceañera, and so she asks Stef’s ex-husband Mike (Danny Nucci) to do her the honors. It is only once the party is over that Mariana realizes what a boneheaded move it was to cling to tradition and not dance with her mothers. It’s a heartbreaking snapshot of a child realizing for the first time the power she has to hurt her parents.
The show has a good heart and wears it proudly on its sleeve, but you’d be mistaken to think this family drama was the second coming of 7th Heaven. This family goes through hell and back over the course of its first season. The stakes are sky high and the drama vacillates between feeling Shakespearean and Greek. And somewhere in all that, the show manages to boast a solid funny bone. As a storytelling vehicle, The Fosters can hold its head up high among all the current cable greats: Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and yes, even the show of the summer, Orange Is the New Black.
The series begins its second season this week. If you like your dramas smart, complicated, and deeply human, don’t let the ABC Family logo throw you. This show about teenagers is for all of us.