If you've heard of The Fosters, the Freeform series about a family made up of two moms and a handful of kids who came into the fold through biology, adoption, and foster care, you probably have a teenager in your life. Or maybe you saw the commercials during one of the network's plentiful Harry Potter marathons, or during a Pretty Little Liars binge-watch. For those of you who haven't seen the show, here are a few facts to know up front: Jennifer Lopez is an executive producer, there is a romantic relationship between a sister and her foster brother, and this sweet drama is completely deserving of Emmy consideration.
Over the last decade, the Emmys have heavily favored a dark kind of TV drama. Bleak depictions of troubled men and women make for interesting, if depressing, television, and we've watched Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones scoop up many trophies. But first-rate drama hasn't always been synonymous with the dark and twisted. In the early 2000s, a hopeful, relatively friendly drama ruled: The West Wing. The political series definitely isn't light; there are few episodes that don't include a major disaster, domestic or international, ranging from devastating storms to terrorist attacks. But it isn't House of Cards, either — the main characters genuinely believe in what they're doing, and obviously love each other. When the main theme plays slowly at the end of the episode, you know everything is going to be okay.
The Fosters likewise tackles decidedly heavy topics, all while managing to maintain a hopefulness and always return to the core of the show — this is a loving family, and they will be there for each other with everyday support and for life's bigger issues.
The Fosters is a show that takes diversity seriously, not just by featuring a racially diverse cast, but by having its characters deal with complex racial and LGBT issues.
It would be easy for the show to slip into melodrama, and Freeform viewers who've only seen the promos may think it already has, based on the major conflicts teased for each episode. In one arc, Callie, a teen who has spent years in the foster system with her brother, is finally being adopted by the two Foster matriarchs, but must first get her alcoholic father to give up his parental rights. Then a paper trail leads the courts to find she has a different biological father. His ignorance of Callie's existence has its own complex backstory, and his emergence in her life comes with a college fund, a half-sister desperate for some bonding time, and eventually yet another court battle.
But each new layer of the story is played in a believable way, with amazing performances from the teenage characters (not that the actors are still teens — that would just be too realistic) and adults alike. Last season featured a tremendous arc following Steph Foster (played by Teri Polo) struggling with the decision to get a double mastectomy after discovering she has a genetic predisposition for breast cancer. A medical scare that could easily be (and initially appears to be) a simple plot device to force a reunion between Steph and her wife Lena (Sherri Shaum) becomes an examination of cultural expectations of femininity, Steph's ability to accept her sexuality and still fear being boxed in by it, and the many ways that fear of facing mortality can manifest.
The Fosters is a show that takes diversity seriously, not just by featuring a racially diverse cast, but by having its characters deal with complex racial and LGBT issues. In one episode, Mariana (Cierra Ramirez), a Latina teen being raised by a white mother and a biracial mother, is adamant about dying her hair blond. While Steph wants to dismiss her daughter's need for a new look, her wife recounts her own youth spent straightening her natural hair, gently telling Steph that, as a white woman, she'd never truly understand. The series also follows the youngest Foster, Jude, and his exploration of sexuality, and features a trans character played by a trans actor (Tom Phelan).
Historically, shows on "Teen TV" channels have been passed over by the Emmys (it seems likely that Gilmore Girls might have picked up a nomination had it aired on ABC instead of The WB). But with streaming platforms like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon thrown into the mix, it seems like the network on which a series airs may be less of a barrier. Perhaps this year, the excellent acting and writing on The Fosters may just land the show a place at the Emmys table.