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Gay TV, Act 2

Gay TV, Act 2


The success of same-sex TV drama The Fosters shows that we’ve graduated from funny to family.

Actress Sherri Saum | Photography ABC Family/Eric McCandless

The Fosters, ABC Family's breakout hit drama about two moms and their very modern mix of biological, adopted, and fostered kids, is a big mess. But that's the point.

"Life is messy," says co-creator and executive producer Peter Paige. He doesn't mean some laugh-track sitcom joke about a Brady Bunch-sized brood all jostling for their turn in the bathroom.

On The Fosters, there's the grandfather who tries--and mostly fails, but keeps trying--to accept his lesbian daughter; the adopted twins' very different ways of handling their drug-addicted biological mom; and the new girl who's been bounced around the system for so long that she's given up on dreaming bigger than of a placement where she and her sweet, nail-polish-wearing little brother are both physically safe. Finally, there's the mom who's not sure she wants to get married, even if she finally can.

"People are not purely anything," Paige says, so what the show aims to capture is "the big mess of it all."

What's not a mess at all is the clear, focused drive of the series' three gay executive producers to create something meaningful. Before turning his attention to writing and producing, Paige was best known for playing Emmett on Showtime's Queer as Folk from 2000 to 2005. "I got to see firsthand the power of in-your-face portrayals in the media that we had not had as kids," he says. "This does feel like an evolution of that."

PHOTO: Gregg Gugliotta, Bradley Bredeweg, Joanna Johnson & Peter Paige

It was in part his work on the board of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, where he was involved in efforts to create federal protocols for LGBT kids in foster care ("I would come back to work with tears in my eyes," he says), that mobilized Paige, along with his producing partner, Bradley Bredeweg, to put same-sex parents front and center in their next project.

"People got used to the idea of funny gay people," Paige says, "and then they got used to the idea of sexualized gay people. And now: gay families. You in? Good. We done with this conversation? Great. It was time for this show. And thank God we got to be the ones who did it."

"I grew up on shows like Roseanne and Eight is Enough" says Bredeweg. "I thought I was either going to be alone for the rest of my life or I was going to marry Michael J. Fox."


Actress Teri Polo (right) on the set of The Fosters

Like The Fosters's moms, Lena and Stef, Bredeweg and his husband got married in their backyard. (The show's midseason finale was hastily rewritten to accommodate a legal California wedding after Prop 8 was overturned last year.) "To know that we are free to tell whatever story we want in that house is a dream come true."

When Joanna Johnson came on board as executive producer and one of the three showrunners (along with the other executive producers), she still couldn't quite believe the show existed--and was already drawing such strong positive reactions from execs and critics. (Jennifer Lopez's production company quickly signed on to back the series, and ABC Family ordered another 10 episodes to air in early 2014, plus a full second season.)

For more than a decade, Johnson has appeared on the soap opera The Bold & the Beautiful. One year's Christmas-themed storyline hit her particularly hard. "I was doing this scene with my husband on the show. We were in front of a fireplace with our two kids, opening presents. I went into my dressing room and broke down in tears. I thought, I'll never have that. I'll never have a family--because I'm gay." Johnson came out publicly in 2012, and she and her half-Latina wife have two adopted, biracial children. "I never thought I would get to write about my life," she says. "On Christmas Day now, I have that scene. My wife watches the show and says, 'Oh, I can see you took that from our lives.' Like the moment where Lena and Stef are lying in bed with their backs to each other--but they reach for each other's hands. That's something we have done, where you just need space, but you also want to say, 'I'm still here.'"

The show's teenage-centric plot twists--which could have easily tipped into Pretty Little Liars fare--remain realistic because they're not treated merely as a source for drama. The characters are young adults, much like the older adults who write them. Bredeweg grew up with an alcoholic dad, now reflected in the storyline of Brandon, the Fosters's oldest son. Brandon also acts out a version of Paige's annual adolescent dilemma, in which he had to decide which divorced parent to live with. "We wrote an episode about it," Paige says, "and the night it aired my mother was visiting. There's really visceral, messy stuff from my life that we had put up on the screen, and I was looking at my mom like, 'Are you getting this?' But I couldn't talk to her about it."

The combined backing of Lopez's star power and the network's forward-thinking branding--its tagline is "A New Kind of Family"--helped the series deflect a brief and badly executed boycott attempt from the so-called One Million Moms. Most of its audience has responded with the same suffer-no-fools attitude as its two no-nonsense moms. "Parenting is a great equalizer," Johnson says. "You're just trying to keep those kids alive."

But, as Bredeweg acknowledges, "Inside the house, it's not different. But outside, in the world, sometimes it is."

"There's that feeling of being a little gay boy, of feeling different, that's at the core of what the show is about--what it was borne out of," Paige says. And soThe Fosters doesn't shy away from one very obvious family values message: "The feeling that no matter what, you're going to be accepted and valued and loved. I created it, and I feel like I need to see it."

Season 1 of The Fosters is available on DVD and Netflix, and new episodes start January 13 on ABC Family.

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