Last year, The Fosters premiered on ABC Family amid buzz that turned it into the Lesbian Moms Hour. (ABC Family tried to position it as the Every Kid Gets a Family Show, highlighting the blended-family aspect, but took the press it could get.) Given the still-sparse representation of LGBT characters on basic cable, it was understandable a same-sex marriage would be a marketing hook. Given that it was a blended-family show with the actual last name Foster, it was understandable there were concerns about the level of nuance with which the show would handle the many social issues its pilot suggested.
But, in a pleasant surprise, the show handled everything, and it was rather good.
The Fosters delights in the intricacies of family, and tackles those intricacies with largely endearing frankness. The series feels lived-in, from the domestic-chaos opening credits down to the cramped shared bedrooms and the kitchen as a default for group scenes, because it’s the only place everyone fits. Police officer Stef (Teri Polo) and vice-principal Lena (Sherri Saum) have a relationship that’s equal parts loving and loaded, surrounded by family politics. Adopted twins Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) and Jesus (Jake T. Austin) rely on each other, rather than their moms. Stef’s biological son, Brandon (David Lambert), carries little-kid resentment that Stef left his father. Her ex, Mike (Danny Nucci), who tries to be a third parent (like being at Mariana’s father-daughter quinceañera dance), is often at odds with them about his involvement. And this is before Callie (Maia Mitchell) and her little brother, Jude (Hayden Byerly), join the household in the pilot, bringing new trust issues—and, because this is TV, new romantic entanglements between prospective siblings.
While most of these dynamics remain low-level problems—obstacles rather than catalysts—their combination has built a wonderful background tension throughout the season, causing reliable friction amid mounting consequences and giving a worn-in wariness to some of the family heart-to-hearts. They also lend weight to other subjects the show’s tackled pragmatically: A teen-pregnancy storyline lasts less than an episode before someone just gives the girl the morning-after pill she wants; Stef deals with self-loathing, courtesy of her homophobe dad; and Callie’s struggles with the faulty juvenile justice system result in her getting the short end of the stick more than once. Some background dynamics just exist, rather than get summarily handled, to good effect: Lena and her mom argue about colorism and raising a child from a different cultural background, and Jude’s tried on dresses and nail polish, amid family support, without indicating deeper preoccupation with gender or sexuality.
Unfortunately, the one relationship on the show that doesn’t work takes up quite a bit of narrative space. The central romance between Brandon and Callie, the prickly end-of-the-line foster veteran, feels overtly constructed—and the love-triangle feint of adding broody classmate Wyatt to the mix doesn’t help. It’s the source of several soapy plot setups, a trend that shows no signs of slowing down in the season’s second half, and though the pair of them talk big game about their driving passion, it never manifests. (When Brandon confesses his feelings at the start of the second half of season one, it’s no wonder everyone looks so surprised.)
Telling and not showing is the show’s biggest speed bump so far. Moments that skirt Issue Debate territory aren’t helped by occasional on-the-nose fallback dialogue. (When people on The Fosters want to talk about their feelings, they sit down and eloquently encapsulate their feelings, dammit. Sometimes it feels mature, and sometimes it just clunks.) Similarly, since this is a quiet series by nature and draws its most compelling drama from characters’ intertwining concerns, the attempt to up the octane by putting Stef under fire felt tacked-on. And while The Fosters manages to avoid treacle most of the time, it’s definitely a show that trades on earnestness, which can feel a little easy among more ironic, antihero-heavy shows.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. The Foster kids aren’t the preternatural intrigue machines TV teens tend to be (the girls from Pretty Little Liars would eat these kids alive), but their dilemmas are sometimes more affecting for being so mundane. In particular, the impressionable and adrift Mariana, who spent the first half of the season assuaging adoptee guilt with her birth mom and dealing her brother’s ADD meds to the cool crowd, is the biggest mess, but also the most cringingly sympathetic sibling. Her emerging starstruck-theater-kid plot in the season’s second half promises to reenact every embarrassing high school memory viewers never wanted.
But the show’s next immediate concern is Callie, who ran away with ex-boyfriend Wyatt in the midseason finale. The Fosters have to handle a guilty, angry aftermath with no easy answers. And on a show so intent on exploring consequences, its no surprise Callie suffers real ramifications. After she picks up old habits on the road, equally determined and doomed, she ends up in group care that should keep her away from home a while. Parsing uncannily like a PG Orange Is The New Black, the group home introduces a diverse collection of foster kids trying to ease out of the system, including a young transgender man, whose discomfort with being assigned to a girls’ home is palpable, and an old enemy from juvie who might prove to be Callie’s biggest stumbling block.
Shifting such a major storyline outside the Foster family seems at first like a huge departure for a show that’s been so insular until this point, but from early indications, it’s a smart move to open the cast without giving up its essential interests. Quiet and solid, The Fosters is a show that loves to tell stories of found families, in all their forms, and now’s as good a time as any to drop into the kitchen and stay a while.
Created by: Peter Paige, Brad Bredeweg
Starring: Teri Polo, Sherri Saum, Maia Mitchell, David Lambert
Returns: Tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern on ABC Family
Format: Hour-long family drama
12 episodes of current season watched for review