Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker Magazine, American Cinematographer, and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
One of the best political shows on TV right now isn’t even about politics – at least not overtly, in the way that Veep or Scandal or House of Cards are. In fact, superficially it’s one of the oldest network staples in the book, a good old-fashioned family drama – not the kind of place one might expect to find some of the most groundbreaking work being done anywhere on television. But that’s part of The Fosters’ genius – it takes the sturdiest and most conservative of TV genres and uses it to radical social ends, making the political personal at a level of excellence unparalleled since the golden age of Norman Lear. Warm, funny, angry, thoughtful, upsetting and inspiring, it drives home the human repercussions of our laws and politics in a way that the actual politicians who make those laws rarely seem to comprehend or consider.
The Fosters, which begins its fourth season on the Freeform network June 20 (you can binge the first three seasons on Netflix and iTunes), revolves around Stef (Teri Polo) and Lena (Sherri Saum), an interracial lesbian couple raising a household of kids that includes Stef’s biological son from a previous (straight) marriage, a pair of Hispanic twins they’ve adopted, and a brother-sister pair they take in as foster children as the series begins. Stef and her ex-husband Mike (Danny Nucci) are both cops, and Lena is the vice principal at a charter school; the characters’ professions intersect with the family’s personal lives in consistently provocative ways throughout the series, allowing the show’s writers to tackle issues including (but not limited to) gay marriage, racial profiling, the privatization of public services, and the role class plays in our legal system and in society at large.
One of the most amazing things about The Fosters is that it’s ostensibly aimed at a teen audience, yet treats its themes with more complexity and maturity than one finds in most so-called “adult” programming; the respect it exhibits for its young viewers is positively staggering. Take, for example, a storyline from season three in which former foster child Callie (Maia Mitchell) becomes an activist for reform of the foster care system and forms an alliance with a woman who may not be a true advocate for the cause. Their collaboration leads to a surprisingly sophisticated critique of the kind of unrestrained capitalism promoted by the present-day Republican platform, as the storyline pointedly illustrates how the profit motive leads inexorably to the literal buying and selling of children. The Fosters has deservedly gotten a lot of credit for its bravery and progressive sensibility relating to social causes (which I’ll get to in a minute), but its true greatness lies in its demolition of the fiction that there is a line to be drawn between social issues and economic ones – the series represents a bold, forceful argument against the entire conservative agenda as it’s been defined since the early 1980s. The cliché that someone can be a social liberal but an economic conservative proves to be an unsustainable contradiction in the universe of The Fosters, which does something none of our politicians have the honesty or courage to do: it shows our country as it actually is, not as we wish it to be.
The miraculous thing about the series is that it maintains an undiluted and uncompromised liberal perspective while refusing to set up easy fall guys or straw men on the other side. I can’t think of a single significant character over the course of the 60-plus episodes I’ve seen that isn’t revealed to have greater dimension than initially established, and who isn’t allowed to fully express their point of view. The writers don’t try to score points by dismissing characters they don’t agree with (such as Stef’s homophobic father), and they don’t earn false sympathy by sugarcoating the people in the communities the series supports. Season one, for example, introduced a transgender boy named Cole (Tom Phelan) and elicited the audience’s compassion not by making him perfect, but by making him human. (The storyline also beautifully addressed the issue of transgender bathroom use that would so coarsely enter our national political discourse two years later.) Cole was downright unlikable and dishonest at times – and also vulnerable, smart, troubled, and furious. Unlike our politicians, the creators of The Fosters make their arguments not by excluding the truths that complicate their beliefs but by including them. When the show gets into thorny, controversial issues, no one ever truly gets the last word; the characters’ – and by extension the audience’s – understanding of the emotional and sociopolitical ideas under examination is in a constant state of evolution.
And while our nation’s political dialogue grows more and more heated to less and less purpose, the writers of The Fosters yield infinite insights by remaining relatively restrained. No matter how directly the show addresses hot-button topics or how closely it veers toward melodrama, it’s never, ever sensationalistic. It recalls the best work of John Cassavetes in its generosity toward its characters and its recognition that extreme, sometimes contradictory emotional states are at the core of the human condition, not part of its periphery. One of its most notable achievements – and the one for which it has been most widely acclaimed – is its inclusion of the youngest same-sex kiss in the history of television, between 13-year-old characters Jude (Hayden Byerly) and Connor (Gavin MacIntosh). This kiss generated a certain amount of attention and controversy, but within the context of the show there’s nothing calculated or scandalous about it – it grows organically out of character and environment, just like all the other landmark moments on the show. And although the series is absolutely packed with political content – even a subplot involving a school play generates interesting lines of inquiry relating to political correctness and the thorny nature of sexual predator laws – it doesn’t feel like it’s straining to squeeze in any kind of agenda.
That, of course, is because you don’t have to force an agenda if you’re just honestly presenting life as it’s lived in America today – the points make themselves. This is particularly evident in the core relationship that grounds The Fosters, the gay marriage between Stef and Lena. The series makes an eloquent plea for tolerance not via propaganda but by presenting the most truthful, multifaceted portrait of a marriage – gay or straight – that I’ve ever seen on television. The clarity and delicacy of Polo and Saum’s superb performances yield a complex intimacy filled with equal parts pain and hope, as episode by episode and season by season the writers have constructed an increasingly rich depiction of married life in all its life and death struggles, subtle negotiations, minor and major grievances, and temptations and disappointments. It’s both universally relatable and profoundly specific, and this specificity is what makes it a potent political statement. While our legislators and pundits bloviate, The Fosters demonstrates that their words and actions matter – that for most Americans, the social and economic policies so cavalierly arrived at by politicians have real-world consequences, sometimes devastating ones.