I remember laughing out loud when I first heard that Jennifer Lopez was producing a TV pilot, and I also remember rolling my eyes when ABC Family picked it up. ABC Family is the prodigal network, always making inexplicable choices (axing Bunheads and airing The 700 Club, to name a few), but it always tries just hard enough that I can eventually forgive it.
Plus it’s summer, and let’s be honest, we’re all more forgiving in the summer.
I first tuned in to The Fosters hoping for a gigli—err, giggle—but I found something slightly more soulful. As the show wrapped its first season last night, I surprisingly found myself still watching and, perhaps more surprisingly, being impressed. The “new kind of family” framework is cloyingly insistent, but it’s still rare enough on television to be refreshing: an interracial lesbian couple (a police officer and a vice principal) mothering the officer’s biological son, their adopted Latino twins, and a pair of foster siblings, one of them fresh out of juvie. The family groups went nuclear, but in a way, so did The Fosters.
It its heart, The Fosters is a family values show. From credits to credits, it wants to tout the strength, comfort, and necessity of family. It’s definitely cluttered; the family spent ten episodes negotiating their blended family in addition to pregnancy, rape, drugs, alcoholism, and illegal immigration. But I still kept watching. The two moms, (whose relationship, by the way, is extraordinarily acted by Teri Polo and Sherri Suam), meet every problem with a light touch and a kind of irresistible panache. More than that, their five teenagers occasionally manage to complexify stereotypes and relationships, resulting in genuinely watchable television. The show isn’t perfect, but it is compelling. It doesn’t have the grittiness of a true drama, and it doesn’t have the humor of Modern Family, but the central family FEELS like a modern family. And in this one, the women work. I like that.
For all of its flaws, The Fosters feels homey. More than that, it manages to be straight-up frank about a lot of things most family dramas never even address, let alone present in an honest fashion. In the pilot, Stef checked in with her biological son Brandon about condoms, explaining that it’s her job “to protect and serve.” A handful of episodes later, she bought the morning-after pill for her son Jesus’s girlfriend Lexi, even though her extremely Catholic parents wouldn’t and didn’t approve. Later, we watched as Lexi absorbed the news of her own undocumented immigration status without too much fanfare. Like that sort of thing happens every day in this country. Which, consequently, it does.
And perhaps in the most honest storyline of all, we bore witness to foster daughter Callie’s struggle with the decision to testify in a case against her former foster brother and rapist, and we saw him go free because of Callie’s checkered past (juvie). She didn’t get her justice because, well, most women in her position usually don’t. We watched Stef deal with her father’s homophobia and her own internalized version of it, and we sat uncomfortably as Lena and her darker-skinned mother had a candid discussion about what it means to be biracial in America. We looked on as Stef and Lena fearlessly navigated the perils and pitfalls of a multicultural family at Mariana’s quinceañera, gracefully allowing her to dance the traditional father-daughter dance with Stef’s ex-husband instead.
The point, I suppose, is that we—or at least I—kept watching.
In an early Fosters promotional clip I checked out (because J. Lo!), one of the show’s producers explained that The Fosters is based on “a very simple belief: that we’re really, fundamentally, all the same.” In many ways, that kind of thinking demonstrates how powerless the show could become, but it also explains how, in its ten episodes The Fosters managed to leverage its honesty, humor, and acting into a wonderful new show. The Fosters has already been picked up for 10 more episodes, and I will be watching them. Maybe ABC Family still has a little Jenny from the block left in it.
Birth, which is nearing the end of its second season, is “like no other show on television and we are so proud to have it as part of our family,” Kate Juergens, executive VP of original programming and development at ABC Family, said in a statement. “Adding additional seasons and episodes of our returning series spotlights how well our programming resonates with our audience.”
The network has also ordered additional episodes of its freshman summer series The Fosters and Twisted.
The renewal/extensions come a week after the cabler cancelled Amy Sherman-Palladino’s ballet-themed dramedy Bunheads.
Switched at Birth‘s third season is set to launch in January 2014. The drama currently airs Mondays at 8/7c.