Remarkably Frank, Overtly Liberal, Totally Great: ABC Family’s The Fosters

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 29 2013 10:49 AM

Remarkably Frank, Overtly Liberal, Totally Great: ABC Family’s The Fosters

thefosters
The Fostersis all about family values, even if its central family seems untraditional to some.

ABC Family/Randy Holmes

ABC Family’s The Fosters, which airs the penultimate episode of its first season tonight, is one of the sleeper pleasures of summer, a sweet family drama that goes down easy while unabashedly having some of the most overtly liberal politics of any series on TV (and without a Republican straw man behind which to hide its blue streak). It’s a straight-up family values show, zealous in its episodic affirmation of the good a stable home can do for children and parents—but one in which the family itself is an affront to social conservatives. Interracial (and yes, sexually active) lesbian couple Lena and Stef (Sherri Saum and Teri Polo) are raising five kids: Stef’s biological son Brandon, a pair of adopted teenage Latina twins, Jesus and Mariana, and two new additions to an already bustling house, foster children Callie and her little brother, the probably gay seventh-grader Jude.

In just eight episodes, The Fosters has been remarkably frank about a number of issues that TV usually avoids, including race and abortion. A few episodes ago, Stef and Lena, who also supply their oldest son with condoms, bought the morning-after pill for Jesus’ girlfriend Lexi, even though her very religious parents would not and did not approve. (When they found out Jesus was having sex, Stef and Lena were most upset that he hadn’t used protection, which they had told him to do many times over.) Lena and her darker-skinned mother got into an argument about what it means to be biracial in America that was more frank than just about any such discussion I’ve seen on television. Stef was extremely reticent to allow Jesus to go with Lexi to a religious camp because of its position on gay people: Jesus eventually reassured her that there was nothing and no one that could make him disrespect and love his mothers. And it was recently revealed that Lexi and her parents are all undocumented, meaning next season the show could take on the Dream Act.

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The Fosters often grants airtime to characters with different point of views to express their opinions, opinions that are always written respectfully, but the show’s underlying, deep-blue perspective ultimately wins out. Lexi’s parents, stern but loving, were horrified that their daughter was having sex and had been given the morning-after pill; while Stef and Lena apologized to Lexi’s parents, they had no regrets providing a teenager with Plan B. Stef and Lena have been together for a decade, but are not married: Stef, who was previously married to a man, doesn’t believe in it, and thinks domestic partnership is enough. Her father is even more agitated by the idea. But note that next week’s season finale is called “I Do.”

ABC Family has previously aired shows with more conservative undertones, like the more pro-life The Secret Life of An American Teenager, but The Fosters fits on the channel because its real message, week after week, is that when there’s trouble, it’s your parents who will help you the most. Stef and Lena have a touchy-feely parenting style, providing condoms, making sure their kids know they can call for a ride if they get drunk, eschewing grounding in almost all cases. But at the climax of most episodes, a teen’s situation dramatically improves when they bring it to one of their mothers, who have fielded everything from pregnancy and sexual assault to wearing nail polish to school. Stef and Lena can’t fix complicated situations entirely—they are moms, not superheroes—but they do, consistently, make these situations much, much better. On The Fosters, parents are to be trusted, which means kids get to be kids. It’s a family values show through and through, even if those who preach “family values” might not agree. 

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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