‘The Fosters’ Boss Peter Paige on Callie’s Season 5 Shift and the ‘Edgier’ Freeform

During the first four seasons of “The Fosters”, the ABC Family-turned-Freeform drama garnered much praise from organizations like GLAAD and the Television Critics Association for its inclusive take on the modern American family.

When “The Fosters” debuted, matriarchs (Sherri Saum and Teri Polo) were already raising three teenagers when a troubled juvenile in the foster care system crossed their path. They quickly embraced her and her younger brother, blending their family further. Building the show on this ensemble backdrop allowed executive producers Peter Paige and Bradley Bredeweg to explore what was affecting today’s gay couples raising kids — as well as those kids individually. Early on in the show’s run, the focus was on love triangles, friendship falling outs, and the loss of virginity, as well as the adoption process and a legal battle over a he said/she said rape case.

Just a year later, however, the network entered a re-branding phase, looking for edgier content to solidify the attention of the younger demographic. “The Fosters” helped the newly named Freeform make noise, as the show shined a light on deeper topics that included marriage rights, transitioning, and the justice system.

Variety spoke with Paige about the evolution of “The Fosters,” striking the balance of serious issue storytelling, and what’s to come with the new age of Freeform.

First, let’s look back over the history of “The Fosters.” Were there any stories you wanted to do early in the run that you couldn’t crack, either because you didn’t feel ready just yet or because the network’s messaging at the time didn’t allow for it?

Back in the day we had the Jude [Hayden Byerly] and Connor [Gavin MacIntosh] kiss coming in season one. [It was going to be at] the end of season one, but we said, “Let’s earn this a little bit more. Let’s let them get a little bit older”– those kinds of things. And there are always those considerations, but now there are really no stories that the network isn’t up for. With the regime change at the network and with the kids getting older and having more independence, it certainly opened up new avenues into additional story. [But] what’s been really fun in the new regime is that we’ve been able to be edgier and talk a little more frankly about the reality of the teen experience. We were always doing that to some degree, but it opened it up enough to [allow] us to get into the nitty gritty of what it is to be a teenager at this moment in time.

Prostitution is an example of what it’s like to be a very specific kind of teenager. How did you come to the decision to bring the show into that dark world?

We’re trying to look really frankly at stuff that’s really happening in the world, and [executive producer] Joanna Johnson went to a seminar from the police department on human trafficking, and she came back and was devastated, and we all started talking about what she had learned. We ended up bringing a couple of women who work in the human trafficking department in Los Angeles into the room, and as soon as we started hearing those stories we knew it was something we wanted to explore. So, we came at it from several different ways and constructed this long game where both Callie [Maia Mitchell] and Stef [Polo] were connected to that world in different ways.

The fifth season premiere picks up in the moments after the fourth season ends, with Callie thinking she’s about to go to jail and posing as another girl from the group home Girls United to meet with a pimp — basically sacrificing herself for that girl. It follows in her usual pattern of doing good for others despite the consequences to herself, but how far can you take that, and what do you think it will take for something within her to shift and start valuing herself?

It is a challenge. We can’t just constantly find Callie in worse and worse and worse situations, but it is in her nature that when there is someone in need, other than her, she will come to their aid or defense– even to her own detriment. And the question of this season for Callie is “What if you stopped that? What if you applied that kind of thinking to yourself instead? Who would you be?”

Is there another character who can help her with that, or is that something she has to figure out on her own?

Stef and Lena [Saum] have been telling her that since the pilot. [She’s] not disposable. But it’s a combination of undervaluing her own life [and] her own well-being and a very strong, very powerful sense of justice. That’s a dangerous remedy. So to some degree it’s a shift that Callie has to make in herself.

Speaking of Stef and Lena, where will this season find them?

Stef, as we know from the end of the finale, is in crisis mode trying to save Callie [when we pick back up with her in the season premiere], and Lena is in a fight at the school [to keep the school from turning Charter] that’s as much affecting her life as it is the kids. But they’re [also] engaged in their continuing struggle, which is to nurture their relationship, to parent these five very different kids, and to find their own fulfillment in life. They have challenges coming on every front, and this season we slap another challenge on the moms when Lena’s family comes back to town. Life is big and messy and hard, and getting older is hard, and having parents who are getting older is hard, and it’s all in there.

Having kids who are fighting is hard, too, which brings up Brandon [David Lambert] and Jesus [Noah Centineo]. Last seen, Jesus thought his brother was the father of his girlfriend’s baby. How soon will that come to a head, and what are the ramifications going forward?

They reach a pressure point in the premiere, and it’s going to be a great big problem. The tricky thing is, they kind of engage everyone in the family, to some degree, and nobody’s really right or wrong. Jesus is justifiably upset on not being clued into something huge that does impact his life, and Brandon was really trying to do the right thing, but Jesus has a TBI [traumatic brain injury], so his coping skills are diminished. As you’ll see in the premiere, that creates a very challenging circumstance for the brothers and for the family.

How do you strike the balance between those heavier stories and more everyday teenage — or even family — issues to tackle, and what is your plan for the tone this season?

The amazing thing about television is it’s never perfect and you’re always learning. It’s like, “OK, next week we’ve got to remember X!” And then you remember X but you forgot Y. But of course that’s the thing about this mess called life, especially in a family like this — this giant, constructed, messy, full of love family — all of the colors of the rainbow are there. There are people having good days [and] there people having bad days. When one kid is winning the spelling bee, another is getting in a van with a pimp. There’s always a way for us to layer in some other lighter, kinder, gentler stuff. And the foundation of the show is the unconditional love, so there’s always hope somewhere in our stories, no matter how bleak they get. The end of the premiere posits a very pointed question about Callie in particular but a little bit sets the stage for a return to family and the more pedestrian questions about what it is to be a teenager and to grow up, as well.

“The Fosters” returns to Freeform July 11 at 8pm.

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