The Fosters debuts tonight on ABC Family at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Is it possible to like a TV show solely because it has its heart in the right place? That’s the main thing ABC Family’s newest drama, The Fosters, has going for it. The cast is variable, at best, and the series often doesn’t use its best actors in the best fashion. Individual scenes feel lumpy and unformed, and the pilot forces a major conflict—two kids wonder about meeting their birth mother—into the very first episode, when it would have likely had more impact somewhere down the line. And, in true pilot fashion, every other line in the episode seems to be exposition, and often clumsy exposition at that, as people fill each other in on the details of their lives in ways that feel unrealistic. To top it all off, there are contrivances galore, and the show rarely lets the audience figure out too much for itself before underlining what it’s trying to say in bold ink.
Yet this is just a pilot. All of the above are perils unique to this particular form, perils that can easily be snuffed out as soon as the second episode. (It’s a pity ABC Family didn’t send out additional episodes to allow for an answer to this question.) The Fosters has quite a bit going for it, too. It has a lovely, well-realized relationship at its center, a long-term relationship that feels comfortable and lived-in in all the right ways. It has a hugely diverse cast, without really calling attention to that fact or feeling self-congratulatory about it. And it has a wonderful premise, one that could spawn several dozen hours of the kind of family drama ABC Family can make so well. The pilot for Switched At Birth was no great shakes either, and it eventually developed into a very good, sometimes terrific, TV series. The Fosters has all the elements to do the same.
At the center of The Fosters is the aforementioned couple. Stephanie and Lena have been together an unspecified amount of time, but they’ve opened their home to a number of kids who need a kind, loving place to stay. Stephanie, played by Teri Polo, is a police officer (who seems to, hilariously, never take off her uniform, the better for us to always know who she is), while Lena, played by Sherri Saum, is a school vice principal (which is apparently a thing). This gives the two ample opportunity to run into kids in need, and it’s easy to imagine future seasons and arcs of this show dealing with kids with big problems that can’t be so easily solved as putting them into a good environment. Stephanie and Lena have the kind of relationship where a steady, unvarying love undergirds everything they do. They’re long past the mad passion part of their lives, but they’re also deeply in love and able to talk most everything out. Polo and Saum don’t get as much to do as you might expect in this pilot—it’s very much about the kids—but they’re the kind of steady foundation a show like this needs if it’s going to truly get better.
Stephanie and Lena already have three kids living under their roof when the episode begins, and within five minutes, Lena has made the unilateral decision to take in a fourth. (Stephanie doesn’t push too hard on this point, perhaps because she knows it’s the premise of the show.) As Stephanie’s biological son from a previous marriage, Brandon, David Lambert has exactly the brand of geniality one would expect a kid who’s survived a divorce and several younger, troubled siblings entering his life. He’s a good kid, trying to live up to the spirit of what his moms have taught him, and if the show is worth its salt, it will explore some of the tension between the person David’s trying to be and the assumed turmoil in his past.
Perhaps it’s that turmoil that causes him to bond so quickly with the girl who seems to be the show’s main character, juvenile delinquent Callie, played by Maia Mitchell. When the pilot begins, Callie’s being beaten severely by some of her fellow juvie residents, which leads to the system looking for other solutions for her. Naturally enough, she ends up in the home of Stephanie and Lena, where the show immediately starts doing interesting things with whether the mothers tell their kids that she’s got a troubled, potentially dangerous, background. Mitchell’s a newcomer, and she doesn’t have tons of charisma, but she’s got a sulky mien that more or less works for the character and seems like she could grow into the part given enough time. There’s a connection that grows between Callie and Brandon, and if it’s not the aforementioned turmoil (and to be sure, the show doesn’t really try to explain it), then it’s hard to say what it could possibly be. There’s not much else there to hold onto. As a tool for exposition to be delivered toward, Callie’s solid. As a troubled kid driving so much of the pilot’s action, she’s not solid enough.
The final pieces of the puzzle are Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) and Jesus (Jake T. Austin), twins who’ve been legally adopted by Stephanie and Lena. In the pilot, at least, they’re mostly there to hang around and contemplate meeting with their birth mother, a conflict that seems forced, simply because we don’t know them well enough to understand how staggering or important this is to them. Did they give up their mom after she abandoned them to the state? Are they holding out hope for her to come back? The show attempts answers, but it doesn’t have the emotional grounding to make any of them play, and most of Mariana and Jesus’ storyline ends up being an unfortunate dud.
There are other characters (including Stephanie’s new partner, someone she has a connection to from earlier in life) and avenues for storylines—at both the police station and Lena’s school, which the kids attend. But for the most part, this is a series based around the home Stephanie and Lena have built and whether they can bring this disparate group of kids together into a family. And that’s where those good intentions come into place. Judged purely on its own merits, this is a mediocre pilot, one that has a lot of scenes that merely exist to provide exposition to the audience, offering no graceful character development or conflict or any other building blocks of drama. Scenes will seem like they’re going somewhere, then abruptly stop, and the show will be off to something else. The pilot’s one big “twist” is all too easy to guess if you’re paying attention, and the Mariana and Jesus storyline is a non-starter.
And yet it’s probably worth sticking with The Fosters for an episode or two, simply because the show has all the upside in the world. The premise is something that a million other shows aren’t doing, and it continues ABC Family’s Monday night tradition (including Switched and the sadly on the bubble Bunheads) of doing deeply felt TV shows about the sorts of conflicts that run through ordinary lives, the ones that 99.99 percent of the country’s population live every day, the ones that aren’t constantly defined by violence and death. As exciting as those other shows can be, there’s something thrilling about a series taking those easy options for conflict off the table and simply telling a story about real people. The Fosters has that potential upside, and for that, it’s easy to hope it finds its way.