Season 3 of The Fosters is available on Netflix today, so you officially have no excuse not to catch up with this excellent hour-long drama about a biracial lesbian couple raising an ethnically diverse family of biological and adopted children. If that sounds like the kind of show you might watch out of a sense of duty or obligation, don’t be fooled: The Fosters may look like the poster show for politically correct diversity, but it’s so much more than that.
The Fosters is like a hybrid of Friday Night Lights and The O.C.: In the pilot, 16-year-old Callie (Maia Mitchell) finds herself plucked from a juvenile detention facility and transplanted to the funky San Diego Craftsman home of Lena and Stef Adams Foster (Sherri Saum and Teri Polo). Stef, a cop, has a biological son from a previous (straight) marriage, Brandon (David Lambert); the couple also adopted twins Jesus (Jake T. Austin, who was later replaced by Noah Centineo) and Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) when they were very young. In the second episode, Callie rescues her half-brother, Jude (Hayden Byerly) from an abusive foster family and he comes to stay with the family, too.
They’re a gorgeous brood, inside and out. Lena and Stef are TV’s closest analogues to FNL’s dearly beloved Eric and Tami Taylor, the football coach and his wife who became their small Texas town’s spiritual center. Where Tami was a high-school guidance counsellor, Lena is the vice-principal of her kids’ charter school; where Eric was a tough-but-fair coach, Stef is a tough-but-fair cop.
The fact that they’re a lesbian couple is a given, not an immediate source of drama. But the series is interested in the ways racial and sexual identity shape our personalities. In the third season, Stef is diagnosed with very early onset breast cancer, and in one particularly great episode, she decides to get a double mastectomy. The decision leads her to chop off her flowing blonde hair after she realizes that a woman doesn’t have to be defined by long hair and boobs. In the first season, Lena and Stef throw a quinceañera to celebrate Mariana’s 15th birthday, and Lena admits to her mother that she went a little overboard in an attempt to acknowledge Mariana’s Latina heritage; as someone who was raised by a black mother and a white father, Lena knows what it’s like to feel caught between two communities. Her mother has little sympathy, insisting that Lena’s light skin has afforded her more opportunities than a woman with dark skin like hers.
I know this all sounds back-pattingly PC, but it’s handled with humor and grace, and it never feels like the show is trying to teach you a lesson. Lena and Stef go above and beyond with their foster duties (they eventually adopt Callie and Jude), but they’re not saints — they’re harried and stressed out, and sometimes they snap. But their home is a lovely place to spend an hour every week. The show deftly balances teen and adult drama, and despite often-heavy subject matter, The Fosters has a light touch, exuding warmth and love like a big group hug. It’s sweet but not sappy, with a beating heart that makes Lena and Stef’s sacrifices feel more than worth it: Money may be tight and the house may be full to bursting, but there’s always enough love to go around.