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'The Fosters,' an ABC Family drama, pushes the envelope further

The show presents a same-sex couple with biological, adopted and foster kids. Its creators say that reflects society, but there has been criticism.

June 19, 2013|By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times
  • Teri Polo, standing, and Sherri Saum (seated at center) star in "The Fosters."
Teri Polo, standing, and Sherri Saum (seated at center) star in "The… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Elbow to elbow around a kitchen island, a family dinner is unfolding.

One teen is thumbing around on her phone; another is dousing his dinner in ketchup; the other two are talking music and dubbing their teacher Grim Reaper. The parents, meanwhile, are dancing around the issue of a former significant other's popping into town.

Just run-of-the-mill family stuff being filmed on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.

But in ABC Family's newest drama, "The Fosters," few things are run-of-the-mill in narrative construct. The parents are a biracial lesbian couple and their brood is made up of biological, adoptive and foster children. The series underlines the basic cable network's tag line: "A New Kind of Family."

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The modern family has always been a Rubik's cube puzzle for TV programmers who must somehow appeal to youngsters without alienating parents. Most scripted shows built around the family hew to traditional formulas, but some networks have stretched limits with divorced parents ("Who's the Boss?," "Mad Men"), adoptive children ("Diff'rent Strokes," "Life Unexpected," "Parenthood") and gay parents ("Modern Family," "The New Normal").

"The Fosters," which boasts celebrity heavyweight Jennifer Lopez as an executive producer, is walking the road paved by such predecessors and like them has drawn criticism from socially conservative groups that disapprove of alternative families. That's when you know things are working, Lopez says.

"TV has always been on the cutting edge and always pushed the envelope of what's going on in society," she said in a phone interview an hour before she would live-tweet the show's premiere earlier this month. "We are pushing those boundaries and saying, 'Hey, this is the society we're living in and we all have to take notice of that.'"

The creation comes from Brad Bredeweg and Peter Paige, whose previous main producing credit was 2010's short-lived, critically panned flight attendant-centered reality series "Fly Girls" on the CW.

"There are so many cop shows, so many medical shows, so many legal shows," said Paige, who starred in Showtime's "Queer as Folk." "There are very few family dramas, in particular nontraditional family dramas. I look around me and that's what I see: people — lesbian, gay, straight, everyone — who are divorced or remarried or single and raising kids."

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"The Fosters" centers on a San Diego-based family: Teri Polo ("Meet the Parents") and Sherri Saum star as Stef Foster and Lena Adams, the couple whose family includes Stef's biological son (David Lambert) from a former marriage, adopted twins (Cierra Ramirez, Jake T. Austin) and a newly arrived teen foster child (Maia Mitchell) — along with her younger brother — whose past has left her guarded.

"When you say it out loud, it sounds like a lot to take in," Bredeweg said.

"But it's a real thing," Paige added. "And when you talk about a family created by two women, you have to look at how they did it. We talked about all the possible ways that a lesbian couple might have acquired children."

Paige, who serves on the board of directors of L.A.'s Gay & Lesbian Center, was well acquainted with diverse families. In 2010, he became personally aware of the foster system when the center received a multimillion-dollar federal grant to develop the nation's first protocol for LGBT children in foster care. (A foster-system expert consults with the show to maintain accuracy.)

"When you put something in somebody's living room on TV, it immediately makes it more accessible — be it a black president, a gay man and straight women that are friends, or a two-mom family or a family made up of adoptive and foster kids — it just makes it more real and understandable," said Kate Juergens, head of programming for the network. It's a premise that hits close to home for Juergens — her sister is a foster mom.

Saum admitted she was surprised that Disney-owned ABC Family turned out to be the network willing to tackle the show's sensitive themes, which have included secret meetings with biological parents, pill selling at school and parental boundaries. But, she quickly notes, the show still fits well on the network schedule.

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"Obviously, it's still ABC Family, it's not Showtime or HBO," said Saum. "It's still incredibly fearless."

Mitchell, who plays foster teen Callie, said she was pleased to find a young character with so much depth.

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