Encore: 'Fosters' Puts A Twist On The Old Family Drama

Encore: 'Fosters' Puts A Twist On The Old Family Drama

7:07am Jul 29, 2013

A new show on ABC Family follows a family with one biological kid, two adopted kids and a new addition, a teenage foster kid. Given how fostering is such an inherently dramatic situation, why hasn't this ever been the premise of a TV show before? (This story originally aired on All Things Considered on June 3, 2013.)

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A new TV show has been steadily building its audience on the ABC Family Channel over the last several weeks. More and more people are talking about "The Fosters."


The series is built around something you don't see very often on the screen, a teenager in foster care. The teen and her brother have been taken in by a family with two moms, who already have three other teenagers, a biological son and two adopted Latino children.

GREENE: It's a situation with a lot of potential for drama - a family making room for new siblings, culture clashes, conflict between teens and parents, parents disagreeing about how to deal with teenagers. "The Fosters" does not shy away from any of that.

NPR's Neda Ulaby watched the show with a real-life foster family. Here's an encore of her story.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "The Fosters" is supposed to be just as relatable as the Cleavers.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Did you take your pill, sweet knucklehead?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I'm on it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Really, like you're on the toast? Let's go. Let's go.

ULABY: It's a typical morning chaos in the Foster household, teenagers gulping down breakfast, parents rushing to get to work.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Backpack. Backpack.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (as character) Yeah, I saw...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Everybody give me a yes. Jesus...

ULABY: Then an interloper shuffles in. Callie is the new foster kid. She's sweet faced, shell-shocked and surly. She beelines for the coffee. The family is horrified or thrilled by this challenge to the rules.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Can I have some coffee, too?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) No.

ULABY: That's a completely relatable moment for a real foster family watching the show right now in the Washington, D.C. living room.

JAMIE SMITH: Kids can't have coffee.

ULABY: Eighteen-year-old Jamie Smith is a foster kid hanging out with her friend Robert Garris and his two foster moms, Meg Gibbon and Angela Pelletier. Smith says the show nails what it's like, as it's called, to be in-care.

SMITH: I gave it a hundred percent.

ULABY: Like the way the show handles the kids' complicated feelings about their birth parents.

MEG GIBBON: The fact that they had that in the show felt real to me because it's an issue. We see you guys struggle with that, right?

ULABY: It has been a struggle for Jamie Smith.

SMITH: When I was younger, around like 11, my mom and I would do visits every week. She was a little bit on some other stuff. So she was having a struggle when she was in rehab.

ULABY: On the show, the idea of meeting their biological mom is a problem between the two adopted siblings.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (as character) See, I knew you wouldn't understand.

(as character) You want me to understand that this woman is a monster? She abandoned us. She left us.

ULABY: And she bails in this episode when it's time to meet her daughter. Jamie Smith can relate.

SMITH: I've had that exact same experience where I'm crying 'cause I was very upset that my mom would not show up to the visits. I mean, week after week, it was very disappointing. So that was definitely a realistic point.

ULABY: Also realistic, how it feels for Callie, the main teenager on the show, to arrive in a strange home not knowing where she'll sleep.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) Do you have a toothbrush?

MAIA MITCHELL: (as Callie) No, I don't have a toothbrush. How would I have gotten a toothbrush?

ULABY: Or the bad foster parents like the one she used to live with.


MITCHELL: (as Callie) I mean, he used to hit me all the time. But, you know, whatever. Nobody seemed to care much about my side of the story.

ULABY: That reminded 17-year-old Robert Garris of living in a home where he and his little brother were treated differently from the family's biological kids.

ROBERT GARRIS: They would let the other kids eat before us. They would let the other kids hit on us and stuff.

ULABY: Now, the show does not get everything right. This real foster family gets a little nitpicky when it comes to the bureaucratic details.

GIBBON: Yeah, and the reality is if they adopted the other kids five years ago, they're not still a certified foster home.

SMITH: I mean, they could've recertified though, 'cause Courtney and Tom...

GIBBON: But you have to do 30 hours every - I mean that's a lot of time.

GARRIS: Yeah, and they didn't do all that.

ULABY: OK, nobody wants to watch a show about the drama of getting recertified. But the foster care system is filled with incredible stories of conflict and messy emotions. It seems like a natural fit for television, so why haven't there been more movies and TV shows about it?

PETER PAIGE: I think it's hard for us as a culture to look at the ways that we're failing. We're failing some kids. There are kids without homes. How is that OK?

ULABY: That's Peter Paige, who created this show, "The Fosters," with Bradley Bredeweg. Paige starred in the Showtime series "Queer As Folk." And originally they were thinking about doing a series about gay dads. But there are plenty of gay dads on TV right now. And then, Bredeweg says, they accidentally learned about a program in L.A. for gay foster kids.

BRADLEY BREDEWEG: And I'll never forget the day you came back and told me about it. And you got emotional, which in turn I got emotional and then it sort of just - it forced us to move in this direction.

ULABY: They sold the concept of a multicultural foster family with two moms to ABC Family. Jennifer Lopez, the singer, signed on as executive producer. The showrunner is Joanna Johnson - logical; she's a white, lesbian mom with a Latino wife and two adopted biracial kids. She says she takes millions of details from her own life and puts them into "The Fosters."

JOANNA JOHNSON: There is a moment in one of the episodes where the moms have had, you know, a hard day with the children.

ULABY: They're in bed, too tired to talk. Then, one reaches out and they just hold hands.

JOHNSON: With their backs to each other, which is a moment that happens sometimes when you're so spent from all the energy you give to your children and work and in life that you just kind of need your space but you still want to be connected.

ULABY: It's the moments like that that sold the show to Susan Punnett. She runs a group that connects foster teenagers with potential adoptive families.

SUSAN PUNNETT: I watched it twice, actually. Then I got totally looked.

ULABY: Punnett says she used to seeing kids without families vilified in popular culture, or just ignored. She says this show, "The Fosters," gives a more nuanced view of older kids in-care.

PUNNETT: There's an assumption that they're difficult; that it's too late to mold them, to turn them into sort of who we think we want our children to be.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) I would really like you to understand how this, tonight, could have ended very, very badly.

MITCHELL: (as Callie) So do you want to send me back to juvie?

ULABY: In fact, Punnett says older kids can be especially loving because they don't take love for granted. Often she says that they're desperately hungry for it.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) You're not disposable, Callie. You're not worthless.

ULABY: Seventeen-year-old Robert Garris says it was not something he expected when he moved in with his current foster parents, Angela and Meg.

GARRIS: Having so much people care for you, it's like I never had all that. Like, so, it sometimes weird and it's so overwhelming. But I know it's also good.

ULABY: This family got a little teary while watching the ABC Family show, "The Fosters." Eighteen-year-old Jamie Smith says that's because it illustrated three things she does not see enough of on television.

SMITH: That it is OK to be in foster care. And that it is OK to be foster parents. And that it is OK to show your emotions.

ULABY: Smith would also like "The Fosters'" producers to know if they ever need real foster kids for special guest appearances, just call her and her friend Robert Garris. They're available.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


GREENE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

WERTHEIMER: And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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