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As the number of LGBTQ+ narratives in film, television, and general pop culture continue to increase, those that helped kick off this necessary shift should not be forgotten. The Fosters, created by Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige (with Jennifer Lopez as a co-executive producer), is one of those under-appreciated gems, yet it remains a powerful series that was ahead of its time, reflecting on adoption by same-sex couples, the labrynithian U.S. foster system, and how a strong and loving bond between two people trumps having the same DNA.
A Freeform series (originally on ABC Family), The Fosters follows the lives of one California couple, police officer Stef Foster (Teri Polo) and school vice principal Lena Adams (Sherri Saum), as they raise their biological, adopted, and foster children. The initial siblings include Brandon (David Lambert) and twins Marianna (Cierra Ramirez) and Jesus (Jake T. Austin, later portrayed by Noah Centineo). Soon, Lena introduces new family members to the rest of the household: Callie Jacob (Maia Mitchell) and later, her younger brother, Jude (Hayden Byerly). From the first episode, the creators enclose social commentary within the narrative, reflecting on same-sex couples and the struggles they face daily, including even unintentional discrimination. For example, after arriving in a new strange place, a scared Callie refers to Stef and Lena as “dykes” for the first time. “They prefer the term ‘people,’” Jesus responds immediately, ready to defend his mothers.
The true magic of The Fosters is in the sum of its parts: the well-crafted scripts for each episode, the direction, and the cast. The diverse ensemble provides the audience with complex, elaborate portrayals, often accompanied by emotional scenes. But it’s Teri Polo and Sherri Saum who take center stage, depicting the marriage of two women from different backgrounds, navigating their lives together in San Diego. Their characters have an ability to tune in with the LGBTQ+ community the most, finally allowing us to relate to someone we see on screen.
As a couple, Stef and Lena are going through many difficult situations and events, most especially raising their adoptive and biological children. Both want nothing more than to genuinely help Callie and Jude, make them feel at home, and provide everything they may require—and, most importantly, they want to assure them that they are wanted and loved in the Fosters household. The Fosters not only follows the partners but the siblings, through whom we observe just how difficult being in the foster system is for a child at any age, and the psychological impact it has on them in the long run. It highlights the issues, and allows room for discussion.
Throughout its five seasons, viewers grew up alongside these young characters, following them through high school and adulthood. Many memorable episodes contained relatable lessons with the potential to further connect with the audience. The Fosters depicts the journey that children in the system are forced to take and how utterly difficult it is to adjust to being around new people, settle, and further trust them. In Season 1, Lena tries to assure them of their pure intentions and tells her foster kids, “All I know is we chose you. And you chose us. DNA doesn’t make a family. Love does. We love you. And that is never going to change.”
The Fosters’ universalism remains undeniably relevant thanks to its tone, which simultaneously blends comedy and drama. Throughout the series, viewers get a glimpse into the Fosters’ family life, including their good and bad days, with many powerful scenes that may be crucial for young adult viewers. For example, as the youngest Foster explores his sexuality and begins his first serious relationship with Connor (Gavin MacIntosh), the show introduces the concept of labels and its negative impact on society. Lena worries about Jude after he’s bullied for simply painting his nails. In a heartwarming scene, she says, “the thing is, if you’re taught to hide what makes you different, you can end up feeling a lot of shame about who you are, and that’s not ok. There’s nothing wrong with you for wearing nail polish, just like there’s nothing wrong with me for holding Stef’s hand. What’s wrong is the people out there who make us feel unsafe.” She explains the importance of being true to who you are and being cautious and alert at the same time, as there are sadly many people who want to hurt anybody who’s different.
Even though The Fosters ended its run in 2018, it remains a powerful show about the challenges everyone faces in their lives. The series also encourages people to open their hearts and unite with others in their struggle and shared experience rather than being divisive because of our differences and prejudice towards “rainbow” families.
Moreover, The Fosters possesses an extraordinary ability to connect generations, especially same-sex married couples who can see themselves on the screen, and their children who are able to discuss matters included in the show with their parents, just like older generations were doing with Family Matters or Full House. The Freeform show certainly deserves a larger audience and recognition for its diverse cast, as well as the dramatic, heartwarming, and multidimensional narratives, and important issues within the timeless script. It’s a great series to discover this summer and binge watch, especially during Pride Month.
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Zofia Wijaszka is a Los Angeles-based film and television critic. She writes for Awards Watch, Nerdist, and First Showing. You can connect with her on Twitter – @thefilmnerdette.
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