Teaching my course on gender, sexuality, and pop culture last spring, I encountered some of the progressive, queer-friendly narratives of the ABC Family network’s line up for the first time. I’d stopped watching Pretty Little Liars before one of its four teenage heroines came out as a lesbian. And I knew nothing of the queer vampire (or is it werewolf?) on Teen Wolf. Who knew that ABC Family programmed stories that would be equally at home on Logo, if that LGBT channel had the money for higher production values?
The Fosters premiered on ABC Family this summer, and multiplies exponentially the gender-, race- and sexuality-related content of its sister shows. Stef (Teri Polo) and Lena (Sherri Saum) are an inter-racial lesbian couple called the Fosters who also happen to be foster parents. The musically talented Brandon (David Lambert) is Stef’s biological son from a prior heterosexual marriage; Jesus (Jake T. Austin) and Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) are teenage Latino twins the couple fostered and then adopted when they were children.
Stef is a cop; Lena is the vice principal at an ocean-side, progressive charter school all their children attend. In the first episode, Lena impulsively agrees to foster Callie (Maia Mitchell), a teenage white girl just released from juvenile detention. It turns out she was sent away for smashing up her step-father’s car, but only after he beat up her little brother, Jude (Hayden Byerly), for wearing a dress.
I didn’t see the whole season, which ended this week with Stef and Lena’s wedding. But I’ll watch again when it resumes, as I’m curious which themes the show will take up next season and how its characters will grow. And if I have to look to ABC Family for representations of multi-racial queer characters, count me in.
The “Family” designation of this ABC network perhaps explains the “after-school special” tone of some—though not all—of the writing on The Fosters. Issue after social issue is packed into each episode in ways that sometimes feel didactic. When Jesus and Mariana find their birth mother, for example, and proceed to see her without telling Stef and Lena, the woman turns out to be a junkie with a murderous boyfriend. She takes money from the twins, but can’t straighten out her life enough to really be of use in theirs.
After Jesus and Mariana learn this hard lesson, Lena comforts Mariana by acknowledging that it must be hard to have a birth mother who chose not to have her children in her life. But Lena explains that she and Stef did choose to parent Mariana and Jesus, and that families of choice often make more sense and provide more support than those bound by biology. Can’t argue with that. And I registered my surprise and pleasure at hearing a character on television explain families of choice so eloquently.
Stef and Lena, who’ve been together for ten years, cap the series’ first season with their wedding. Stef is reluctant, sabotaging the upcoming nuptials with sarcastic remarks and casual indifference until she realizes that she’s internalized her father’s homophobia. When she accepts that the doubting voice in her head is not hers, but her father’s, she uninvites him from the wedding and moves forward with her commitment to Lena.
The wedding ceremony scene is nicely subdued. Lena’s father, who officiates, announces how pleased he is that the Supreme Court finally did the right thing by realizing that all people are entitled to equal protection under the law. Again, I found myself delighted to hear a television character expressing such an opinion.
Danny Nucci plays Mike Foster, Stef’s ex-husband, who also happens to be an alcoholic cop (they once were partners on the police force). His addiction is the least persuasive plot line in the first season, too easily resolved when we see him attending an AA meeting in the last episode. Even though ABC Family’s network tag-line is “A New Kind of Family,” it seems a show like this can’t get away without some sort of heterosexual adult male presence. Nucci doesn’t have much to do as Mike, except be the standard-bearer for a straight guy trying to be mindful of his privilege and his masculine presumptions. But I suppose even that contributes a useful, if mostly pedagogical, point of view.
The actors carry the show with earnest performances that soft-pedal the dialogue’s frequent preaching. Although they’re not quite convincing as a romantic couple—despite frequent bedroom scenes with a generous amount of bare skin and physical intimacy—Polo (as Stef) and Saum (as Lena) manage an affectionate chemistry that makes them plausible as a couple with five kids who manage a household and two full-time jobs.
The young cast is excellent. Austin and Ramirez have a lovely rapport as Jesus and Mariana, the Latino twins; that they look out for one another, even as they begin to meld with the rest of the family, provides some sweet sibling moments. Mitchell and Lambert, as Callie and Brandon, the two oldest teens, try to avoid their growing erotic attraction all season, especially once Stef and Lena decide to formally adopt Callie and Jude. When Callie and Brandon finally hook at up their moms’ wedding, the moment precipitates a cliff-hanger crisis in preparation for Season Two. Mitchell is terrific as Callie—she’s an appealing, smart young actor who reacts with nuance in a role that could be cloyingly overplayed.
Domestic arrangements, with their trials and tribulations, are the stuff of television sit-coms and melodramas. The Fosters falls into predictable patterns, exploring high school traumas, the complications of a blended family, and the complexity of people across generations helping one another through their lives. That the parents here are lesbians, that the family is multi-racial, and that four of the five kids are adopted from a disorganized and uncaring foster system makes The Fosters worth a look.
The Feminist Spectator