Over the course of its first 10 episodes, The Fosters quietly became a show you couldn’t help but root for to succeed. Having the unfortunate timing to launch squarely within the shadow of ABC Family’s frustrating indecision on whether to renew Bunheads (RIP, sweet Bunheads), any buzz the show could normally have created for itself upon its arrival instead wound up weirdly knotted in some sort of network zero-sum game for survival with fans, with The Fosters always resolutely coming out on the bottom.
This perception was entirely unfair, not only because pitting shows against each other gladiator-style is simplifying the economics of television to a cartoon-like level, but also because The Fosters deserves a chance to be judged on its own merits. By the time this finale rolled around The Fosters was doing just that, and with ABC Family’s decision to order more episodes the show is well on its way to carving out a solid place on the network all its own.
But does The Fosters deserve this now comfortable network space based on its creative merits? When the show premièred, there was a spark of something interesting in the relationships, although it was shrouded by the more melodramatic aspects of its characters’ lives. And while the drama here still tips its way into melodrama a bit too often to call the series great, there is a rock-solid core of greatness within the character dynamics that makes the show a genuine pleasure to watch.
What this show does that makes it special is luxuriate in the everyday, honest emotions of a family that is trying to do something great by bringing all of these troubled children together, not because “doing something great” is a goal in and of itself, but because they can’t imagine making any other choice. There are so few places to turn on television to find shows where casual emotional catharsis is the whole point, where the small journeys along the way are as essential as the eventual end point of those journeys. The Fosters has this in spades, and it all starts with the marvelous core relationship of the show and the focus of this finale: the marriage of Lena and Stef.
It’s one thing for a show to have a same-sex relationship at its core, but it’s quite another to have that relationship feel as complex, layered, and love-filled as Lena and Stef’s has been over the first 10 episodes of this series. The relationships on this show work because none of them feel generic, and this organic feel starts with Lena and Stef before radiating out to the relationships they then have with their children. There’s an emotional specificity to everything they face that’s as well-drawn as anything on the television landscape, and the amazing thing is how this relationship didn’t build up to this over the course of the season, but arrived at this place in the pilot, fully formed and teeming with possibilities for the future.
Where it ultimately leads in this finale is to their wedding, which takes the time to make a nicely barbed, quick political aside into the recent Supreme Court rulings allowing the marriage (the Fosters live in California) but never forgets the potential cost their sexual orientation has on their personal lives. Stef, having come out at an older age after being married and having a child with a man, faces completely separate challenges from Lena in that her father is not accepting of her decision to come out, and the show handles these differences in a surprisingly tender way. When Stef pushes Lena away as the wedding approaches it isn’t some contrivance about cold feet; it’s because her father’s rejection of everything she’s chosen, everything that is good about her life now, is eating away at her soul. It’s only when she confronts him and lets the specter of his disapproval go that she can fully emotionally engage with her own happiness, and Teri Polo plays this wide range of emotions remarkably here.
It’s this level of care with its characters’ emotions that gives the show its great, resonant core, but the downside is that when the writing skews towards broader concerns, this core tends to suffer. Lena and Stef’s direct interactions with their various children mostly stay within these same emotional confines and therefore work, but it’s when the children go off into their own stories that things get a bit murky. The Fosters has the noble desire to want their stories to be about something—trying everything from issues of illegal immigration, deadbeat parents, gun violence, rape, teenage sex and the morning after pill, and the faltering economy all within this short season—but the problem is the broader they go, the less successful the stories tend to be. It doesn’t help that the show is still figuring out its pacing issues, leading to a few points in the season where the issues piled up on each other like an awful car crash on melodrama highway.
Still, even though the show hasn’t quite figured out how to make these stories work, there’s something almost refreshing about a show that is unmistakably attempting to be more—to say more—than just your typical family drama, even if those attempts are a bit sloppy. What is more concerning is the forbidden, tentative romance between Brandon and Callie, two of the children in the family (biologically unrelated children, I must add) whose interactions throughout the season all lead to a big kiss here in the finale. Watching their kiss and Callie’s decision to run away from the first stable family she’s ever known as a result is heart wrenching stuff, yes, but it’s so close to the line between the emotional truth that makes this show sing and the horrible over-soaped nonsense that drags the show down that it’s troubling to know it is the big question looming over the show’s narrative, and potentially the biggest driver of the plot for the next batch of episodes.
Like in the early days of the now-great Switched At Birth, ABC Family’s other thoughtful family drama, The Fosters is still fumbling its way toward figuring out exactly what it wants to be. But there’s a lovely moment in last week’s penultimate episode where Stef soothes adopted daughter Mariana’s worries about her place in the family by gently reminding her “You chose us. We chose you.” This moment is brief but immensely powerful and show-defining in its absolute certainty of the family’s mission, because what is the Foster family if not a family determined by the choices these people have made to be together?
The Fosters may still be struggling at times to successfully marry specific stories about the characters with the larger, more socially-minded stories it also yearns to explore, but at its heart it’s a show about love, choices, and how those two forces can come together to become something extraordinary.
And that’s a story I choose to continue to watch develop.