Peter Paige, the executive producer of The Fosters and an alum of Queer as Folk, is with me in the back room of a cavernous gay nightclub that was clearly once a bank: the doors are still designed to look like giant safes, and money-themed decor is everywhere you look. But now, mostly-naked dancers who have clearly never skipped leg day wander vaguely through the space, and a man tends to a tray full of artfully half-filled drinks. We are on set for his new show, Good Trouble. It is a cool 2 in the afternoon in Downtown Los Angeles.
“I’ve always been drawn to people who are OK with their humanity,” he explains about the characters he loves to write and help bring to life. While the show, which premiered on January 8, opens on sisters Callie and Marianna Adams Foster (Maia Mitchell and Cierra Ramirez) moving to Los Angeles for their first post-college jobs, its lens quickly zooms outward to envelop the other people who live in their very modern, very millennial co-living space called the Coterie. Each person is clearly dealing with their own shit, and Paige says that’s by design: “The thing that we value in storytelling, in terms of character, is mess — people who are present for their own mess.”
And evidently, that mess includes a gay nightclub where gogo dancers are built like human steaks, but it also includes quieter moments at home and mundane struggles at work. The show’s title comes from a John Lewis quote, Paige notes, as the characters have been raised to cause the kind of “good trouble” — the kind that changes the world, and forces your society into a better and more understanding environment. “I can easily imagine saying to one of my friends, in my 20s, ‘Hey, should we go out and get in a little good trouble tonight?’,” Paige muses. “It also has these other connotations that I think are just naughty and salacious and there's a lot of that on this show. Do not be misled, this show is about every aspect of your messy 20s.” In that way, it is a balance, and an invitation to make space in your life for your activism, your identity, and your social life all in one.
There’s Callie, who is trying to survive her first year as a law clerk, and Marianna, who finds herself way over her head as one of the few women programmers at a tech startup. But there is also Gael (Tommy Martinez), the moody artist that Callie can’t quite figure out; Malika (Zuri Adele), an activist who won’t let the powers that be dim her shine; Davia (Emma Hunton), whose self-assuredness masks her own insecurity; and Alice (Sherri Cola), the self-appointed mom of the Coterie who is one smoke alarm away from a nervous collapse. Together, they are tasked with various hurdles to jump: exploring and understanding their sexuality, coming out to parents and potential love interests, weathering hellacious first jobs and nightmare bosses, feeling alone and homesick in a new city, and pitching in for toilet paper. It’s the quintessential“adulting” experience, but with higher stakes and a very Urban Outfitters-esque dining room set. (This is television, after all.)
“The truth is, in our early 20s, we're all messy,” Paige muses. “My first year out of college, my hardest year, bar none. There's not even a question. There's not even a year that's close — and not that I'm challenging you, universe, to be clear! But it's a hard time. For the first time, you are creating your life on your own terms. There's no parents. There's no siblings. There's no college. Callie and Mariana have each other, but there's no professors. There's no dorm. There's none of the ... It's like you are the author of your own experience, officially and completely, starting that first year you move out on your own, and it's hard.”
To Paige, one of the most important elements of the show is what he refers to as its “chosen family” dynamic, itself a crucial affirmation for communities where there’s no support from traditional forces. While the family dynamic in The Fosters was established by way of a literal foster family, and Good Trouble by its characters’ mailing address, finding that chosen family can mean the difference between working through a breakdown, or giving up and heading home.
“My closest friends to this day are my best friends from college; we all came to Hollywood together,” Paige remembers. “We all struggled mightily but we propped each other up, celebrated the victories, celebrated the near misses. My friends would take me out to dinner when I screen tested for a part that I didn't get to be like, ‘You were number two. There were 10 thousand guys who read for that job. So yeah it sucks, yeah it's not paying your bills, but we're going to have some cheap pizza and we're going to toast to that fact!’ That got us all through.”
That Paige and his collaborators, which includes The Fosters alums Joanna Johnson and Bradley Bredeweg, are telling a myriad of stories on a relatively accessible network like Freeform offers major creative freedom to tell stories in the right way. There was, Paige notes, “very little pushback” from the network on what storylines The Fosters could explore; those include what is likely the youngest same-sex kiss in TV history, and the careful, respectful way the show explored Callie’s relationship with Aaron, played by actor Elliot Fletcher. (Both Aaron and Elliot are trans; the show was one of the first to do due diligence in casting an actor whose lived experience could better inform the character.)
“I was in Palm Springs and a friend of mine said to me that his very conservative, Fox-watching parents were obsessed with, and in the middle of a relentless binge of, The Fosters and it's softened them. It's actually speaking to them. And I sat at the breakfast table weeping,” Paige remembers. “That's why I do what I do. I believe in television.” He still receives tweets and messages from people who discovered Queer as Folk at a crucial moment in their lives, though the show ended in 2005.
Paige, who played Emmett in the groundbreaking show, thinks of it as a formative learning ground for the work he’s done since. “Queer as Folk emboldened me [to believe] that something can be entertaining, it can be about something, and it can be beloved. I was at the forefront of that kind of storytelling and I got to experience firsthand how they change people and how they continue to change people.”
He calls television in particular an “arbiter of truth in this culture.” And part of that truth means accurately reflecting people’s lived experiences, and the totality of their being. That they are not reduced to stereotype is crucial. A person’s sexuality is important, but it is not the whole of them. We all have more going on in our lives than who we sleep with, and LGBTQ+ characters deserve the same multifaceted storylines their heterosexual, cisgender counterparts have been granted for years. As Paige sees it, “You bring all of you into pretty much every moment of your life no matter how much we try to compartmentalize.”
For his part, Paige is still learning how to better give the LGBTQ+ community a platform in ways certain members have not been allowed before. At a recent Freeform panel with Fletcher, Paige was quick to own a production misstep: Fletcher’s character, Aaron, had been given a textbook as a prop, and the actor was concerned that it was a book specifically about transgender law. It’s an important issue within the greater umbrella of law practice, especially because trans people are among the most disenfranchised, but Fletcher was worried the book reduced Aaron’s identity to his transness.
Paige readily worked to correct the mistake, and the props team found a new book. “No one is perfect at this, and we take it all very seriously. We try super hard. It doesn't mean we don't miss things, and I just wanted to put that out there, that even The Fosters — the most earnest, progressive show on TV — we messed up, and we're all learning,” he says now. “We're continually learning about other human beings, and what you've got to do is go, ‘I hear you. Let me fix it. Let me make it better. Let me try again.’”
Accurate representation can, in many ways, also serve as its own lifeline and a blueprint for what is possible. “I'm the 12-year-old boy who knew he was gay and had Uncle Arthur on Bewitched to look at. That was it,” Paige muses. “Seeing imperfect, messy, beautiful, queer-in every-sense-of-the-word, people who are finding their way through their lives, finding their way, failing, succeeding… that could only have helped me find my path sooner and better.”
“Visibility is everything for the people who are being represented and for the people who are being exposed,” he underlines. “The only way that we're getting through any of this, this moment in our country, this moment on our planet, is by coming together and caring for each other. That idea is central to The Fosters, is central to Good Trouble and I hope it reverberates throughout the culture because otherwise we're fucking doomed.”