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‘The Fosters’ Team on Holding a Mirror Up to Family and Societal Issues for 100 Episodes

When “The Fosters” co-creators Peter Paige and Bradley Bredeweg were pitching their “traditional family drama with a non-traditional family,” it was important to them to offer a fresh perspective on age-old ideas and questions for their characters.

It’s a formula that has been successful for the series throughout ABC Family-turned-Freeform’s multiple network rebrands and 100 episodes.

Starting with a story about two moms (Stef and Lena Adams Foster, played respectively by Teri Polo and Sherri Saum) raising a house full of children, the creators knew they wanted a range of family members to open up the emotional struggles for the characters and offer more baggage to be unpacked.

“What’s it like to be the younger brother of a golden boy has been in every drama that’s ever been, but what’s it like to be the younger, adopted brother of a biological golden boy?” Paige says of characters Jesus (played initially by Jake T. Austin but recast midway through the series’ run with Noah Centineo) and Brandon (David Lambert). “We wanted a little bit of everything: we wanted a son who was born biologically from a previous marriage, we wanted some kids who had been brought into the family by adoption but were there a while, and then we thought [it would be] an interesting pilot premise if this girl came into the family and mixed things up.”

That girl was Callie (Maia Mitchell), a teenager who was plucked out of a juvenile detention hall after being attacked by a bunch of girls. Prior to being sent to juvie, she and her brother Jude (Hayden Byerly) were living in an abusive foster home while her father was in jail for killing her mother in a drunken-driving accident.

Taking on such serious subject matter opened up the story ideas, but also made “The Fosters” a tough sell at first.

“It really made us take a step back and think as business people, not just as creatives, and make a package,” Bredeweg says.

This led to attaching Jennifer Lopez as an executive producer, not only because she believed in the story but also because her name would bring more attention to the project. Benny Medina also came aboard as an executive producer.

Paige and Bredeweg also felt strongly about bringing on another writer and executive producer who could speak more authentically to the experience of what it’s like to have two women raising a family. Enter Joanna Johnson, whom they call “the greatest partner.”

“Peter and I are two out, proud gay men who created the show, and we realized we really wanted a powerful female voice in the room,” Bredeweg says. “[Joanna] is a lesbian woman who’s married with two adopted kids, and she just brings a very obviously clear perspective on all of that. It’s been extremely powerful for us to partner on the show, and I’m forever grateful for her wisdom in all of this.”

“The Fosters” has tackled tales of gender identity, school violence, addiction and immigration in its five seasons.
Courtesy of Freeform

“The Fosters” premiered on June 3, 2013, during the height of then-ABC Family’s “New Kind of Family” campaign, which put the spotlight on teens and young adults both in programming and in the demographic they were courting. In October 2015, though, the Disney-ABC Television Group announced that ABC Family would be rebranding as Freeform and the focus would shift slightly to programming about those in the “formation” of their lives.

“The Fosters” still fit comfortably in this model, and when the rebranding took effect in January 2016, it remained on the schedule as an important piece of legacy programming.

“We’ve had this interesting transition from ABC Family to Freeform, and this is a wonderful show that transitioned with us,” says Freeform president Tom Ascheim. “It’s still relevant — and it’s only gotten more relevant as the world has evolved — and we wake up, and it’s like it’s become current events. That’s something that makes us incredibly proud. It’s a beacon for us that’s out in the world.”

“The Fosters’” fourth and fifth seasons aired on Freeform, split into two parts. The first half of the fifth season averaged 688,000 live viewers and 0.3 in the key 18-49 demographic. But the show got a significant boost in viewership and social-media buzz from delayed viewing and binge watching outside of the season on streaming service Netflix, according to Freeform EVP of programming and development, Karey Burke.

“We couldn’t have guessed the show would grow in ratings in its fifth season,” says Burke. “A show that continues to be relevant and continues to top itself with its relevance and authenticity and currency is rare, and it’s been a delight to see.”

The second half of the Freeform family drama’s fifth season, which concludes with its 100th episode as its season finale, launched just days before the network rebranded again to focus on the “a little forward” initiative — to the tune of 517,000 live viewers and 0.22 in 18-49. The network had already announced a final three-episode arc to wrap up the show in summer 2018 and set up a spinoff for stars Mitchell and Cierra Ramirez.

“There’s a vitality to the characters and the relationships, and the stories come from there,” Ascheim says. “It’s emotionally generous, and it lets people in. They clearly have a point of view about what is right and wrong for each of the characters, but it’s not black and white. It lets many people from many places feel different ways about the stories.”

Beyond the issues the family on “The Fosters” has dealt with — from teenage pregnancy to traumatic brain injuries and abuse within the foster care system — the show has also often turned topical, taking on stories reflected in the news, such as transgender prisoner rights, human trafficking and the repeal of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).

“[‘The Fosters’ has] only gotten more relevant as the world has evolved.”
Tom Ascheim, Freeform president

“Consistently throughout the seasons touching on important topics and all of the representation on the show, I’m always super proud to be a part of it,” says Mitchell.

But the show never set out to be “ripped from the headlines.” The reason producers feel it has resonated with so many is because the stories always come from a place of “family first.”

“Because of the natural way that this family is formed with biological kids and foster kids and two moms, it lends itself to really explore issues that are important in our society. In the beginning, five years ago, there was no show with two moms raising children,” Johnson says.

Saum remembers the first photo shoot she and Polo did together for the show. They had to kiss, and people were coming up to them on set telling them they were brave.

“I felt like, ‘Wow, I guess something huge is happening. I guess this is still a big to-do,’” Saum says. “And it was not brave, by the way; it was delicious.”

Polo recalls an early moment in the show’s run when she left a gift for Saum in her house and her daughter came running out with it telling her she forgot the purse for her wife.

“I thought, ‘This is what’s important.’ We are teaching, and our children are learning and accepting not only other people, but also who they are and that you are who you are and that’s OK and you are loved,” she says. “That’s when I knew the show was truly special.”

“The Fosters” was a hit with the Teen Choice Awards from the first year it was eligible, in 2013, but then went on to larger awards attention such as winning a youth programming honor at both the 2014 and 2015 Television Critics Assn. Awards, as well as winning for drama series at the 2014 GLAAD Media Awards. It was nominated three more times in the years that followed.

Beyond the Hollywood events, including hitting a special milestone episode like the 100th, though, what all involved in “The Fosters” say has meant the most is the reaction they receive from the audience, both in-person and on social media.

“When we hear from our viewers on a daily basis about how the show has reflected a mirror image of who they are out in the world, and they feel like they’re not alone, and they feel like they have a voice out in the world and see characters that are similar to who they are and what they’re going through,” Bredeweg says. “It’s those kinds of things that really are the most impactful and I’m the most grateful for.”

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