After five seasons and a three-hour finale, Freeform’s (formerly ABC Family) The Fosters will go down as one of the most consistently groundbreaking series in TV history. From its premiere on June 3, 2013, it was clear that the series from creators out creators/showrunners Peter Paige, Bradley Bredeweg, and Joanna Johnson about lesbian moms raising biological, adopted, and foster kids would not only be important and special, but also, wildly funny, and often tear-jerking. But what could not be predicted was how consistently relevant the series would remain for its more than 100 episodes. Throughout its run, the show explored the importance of marriage equality before it became the law of the land, tackled racism, coming out stories, featured one of television’s first transgender characters (played by a trans man), and covered rape, school shootings, immigration and ICE, sex trafficking, breast cancer, and the multitude of issues kids in the foster system face daily.
Despite its issues-related storylines that often left viewers in tears, The Fosters, led by Sherri Saum and Teri Polo as moms Stef and Lena Adams-Foster and Maia Mitchell as the troubled teen Callie they foster and eventually adopt along with her brother Jude (Hayden Byerly), will be remembered most as a series about the power of love and acceptance.
Paige, Saum, and Elliot Fletcher, the transgender actor who plays Callie’s friend, mentor, and love interest in later seasons, spoke with The Advocate about the series’s standout storylines and themes that continue to move them. Here are those snapshots.
In June 2013, actresses Saum and Polo were clad in white saying “I dos” as television wives and dancing with their on-screen kids Brandon (David Lambert), Jesus (then played by Jake T. Austin who was replaced by Noah Centineo), Mariana (Cierra Ramirez), Callie, and Jude to Macklemore’s “Same Love” for the show’s season 1A finale. As the actors shot the wedding scene that followed Polo’s Stef’s heartrending rift with her dad over her marrying a woman, the Supreme Court struck down the part of DOMA that kept the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and also let stand an appeals court ruling that struck down Prop. 8, thus making marriage equality legal in California.
“The day our moms got married [on set] is the same day that Paul [Katami] and Jeff [Zarrillo] got married at LA City Hall. And the same day that Sandy [Stier] and Kris [Perry] did in San Francisco,” Paige tells The Advocate about The Fosters’s wedding’s unreal timeliness. “Literally, we were shooting that afternoon they were having weddings. It was an unbelievable moment. And seeing that get out into the world and resonate—not just politically but also personally - seeing how the fans had taken to this family was a pretty incredible moment.”
The Fosters’s heartfelt wedding moved audiences and also Saum, who says it is the scene that stands out the most to her over the show’s five seasons.
“I always go back to the wedding day because it was just so unbelievably timely with what was happening in California at the time with marriage equality.” Saum says. “We actually got to use “Same Love” on the show. “Today, it gives me goosebumps—that song. And to be there with the cast, sharing this love, and sharing, not even this fictional situation, but this real-life situation happening at the same time. It was just magic. It was out-of-body. It was beauty. It was pure love.
Of course, The Fosters featured diversity in terms of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, but as the series title suggests, it also told a story about the marginalized kids in the foster care system. The series depicted the struggles of so many forgotten kids who wouldn’t end up adopted into a loving home like Stef and Lena’s kids Callie, Jude, Mariana, and Jesus. Paige and Saum recall a few of the foster kids’s stories as some of the most heartrending they told on the series.
“We had a day where Congresswoman Karen Bass brought like 50 kids who were in the system or who were recently aging out of the system to the set. And it was so powerful to see them see themselves reflected. To see them see that their stories were being told pretty honestly, very respectfully, in a way that they had never, ever, ever had. And what it meant to them,” Paige says of shooting during season one. “I just spent that whole day kind of in a puddle of tears, because I too know what it’s like to feel invisible in the media, or misportrayed in the media. As a gay person—that was my childhood. To see another marginalized group get their representation—it was really profound.”
Inspired by the series and the foster kids she’s met, Saum says she partnered with A Sense of Home, an organization that helps kids aging out of the system get set up in an apartment with appliances, decorations, and furniture.
“One of the things that was really impactful to me was the idea that once you’re turned out of foster care at 18, you’re kind of just booted out and left to fend for yourself, and I think we dealt with that with—I think it was Daphne’s character [a friend of Callie’s at Girls United],” Saum says of one of the foster kid stories that moved her. “She had to kind of figure shit out, and you don’t have to think about these things when you have the privilege to have not had to go through this and think about very basic things like where am I going to live? And where am I going to find a toaster? And a job, and life skills..."
Early on in The Fosters’s run, the show introduced Cole, a trans man who was transitioning, in a storyline that had Mitchell’s Callie plucked out of Stef and Lena’s home and sent to Girls United, a group home. Laverne Cox had already broken ground as a trans woman cast in a trans role on Orange Is the New Black and Transparent was beginning to get some buzz when The Fosters introduced Cole. And the benchmark piece of his story, which centered on his being placed in a home that didn’t match his gender identity, was that Tom Phelan, the actor who portrayed him, was also transitioning at the time.
“Long before we had Aaron [Elliot Fletcher], we had Cole,” Paige says. “And what was amazing about the Cole journey was that Tom was transitioning in front of us. Tom was mid-transition and took steps in transition as we moved forward. I don’t think that that journey has ever been captured on camera before, anywhere.”
Fletcher, who stepped into the series in later seasons says that Phelan’s presence on the show was meaningful to him.
“Before I was ever on the show, a good friend of mine, Tom Phelan. It was really cool, not only to be able to see a trans person on television, but someone who was my personal friend, and someone who I sort of shared a lot of the same values and viewpoints with,” Fletcher says. “So it was like wow, yes, now I’m seeing myself on television.”
The Fosters is nothing if not about extended family. Throughout its five-plus seasons, the series used family dinnertime for catching up as a family and for the audience, for hilarious banter, and for some jaw-dropping revelations.
Although Fletcher came late to the cast and dinner or meal scenes always signaled a long day on set, he recalls those days as some of his favorite times with the cast.
“When we’re all at a table together, even though it’s a simulated meal, it’s very familial and it’s very much like we’re just hanging out. Yes, every three minutes we have to shut up and do a scene, but then we can go back to just sort of being friends,” Fletcher says. It’s been really cool to be able to be a part of that and to be welcomed into it because I did come into it a little late. All the dinner scenes are great because then you get to see everyone’s dynamic together.”
In a shout-out to working with the terrific young cast, Saum also calls out family meals as a fond memory.
“We got really lucky [with the cast]. It’s rare to have such cohesiveness and joy in your work, especially when you work 16 hours in a kitchen scene with kids on their Snapchat and all that,” she says. “But it actually turned out to be wonderful, and they taught me so many things. They inspired me so much, especially compared to what I learned in my twenties—these kids are so plugged into what’s happening in the world, and they have a voice and they’re using it.”
In its final season, after Donald Trump took office and began assailing trans and immigrants rights, the Fosters amped up its prescient storytelling. One plot bumped up against the issues of immigration and trans rights when Fletcher’s Aaron is arrested while attempting to warn undocumented students that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is illegally rounding them up.
In the episode, Aaron is hauled to jail as he screams to Callie that he can't get processed—that it's too dangerous for him as a trans man. He's eventually placed in solitary confinement for his own safety, a problematic option that is too ofen relied upon in the prison system.
“Being a part of the show, and some of the stuff I’ve touched on in Aaron’s storyline was really great and I’m super glad that we’re touching on it, touching on subjects like transgender people going to jail,” Fletcher says. “I think it’s stuff that’s obviously not talked about a lot, so it’s nice to have this huge mainstream platform to talk about these issues.”
Early in season one, Callie’s brother Jude was bullied for painting his nails blue, an indication that the series might explore his gender identity and/or sexuality. By season two it was clear that Jude had a crush on his best friend, the athletic, popular Connor (Gavin McIntosh). But even better, it turned out that Connor reciprocated Jude’s feelings and the two young men shared a kiss in season two.
The series had depicted opposite-sex kisses and a bit more between teen characters and lesbian sex between the moms, but the Jude and Connor kiss, the youngest same-sex kiss on TV to date, sent some viewers, straight and queer, into an uproar, Paige says, recalling it as one of the most impactful moments of the series in terms of audience reaction.
“Jude’s coming out and particularly Jude’s first kiss…which was this beautiful, chaste, long-earned kiss with the boy who had been his best friend, who became his boyfriend— I was so invested in it. In a lot of ways it paralleled my own childhood, and my own story,” Paige says. “I was so invested in those characters, and it also felt earned, right, so natural and honest that I was shocked at the blowback. We got more blowback on that story than on probably anything we’ve ever done. We got more blowback on that story than on anything that happened in Queer as Folk [the breakthrough series on which Paige starred].”
“It was because of their age. I was so surprised. I had forgotten that there was this really false notion that gay people don’t turn gay until they’re adults. The kiss was more chaste than the kiss in My Girl. And nobody was running around screaming that the people who made that movie were pedophiles,” Paige says. Not only did the sick-o Internet trolls come for us, but some gay people came for us, too.”
‘You’re making us look bad, you’re making us look like perverts,’” Paige recalls queer people told him. “I was astounded. I went on HuffPost—they do a live show about gay issues… Even the host of that was like, ‘So, quite the scandal.’ And I was like, ‘Hi, can we not talk about it like that?’ The truth is, gay adults start out as gay kids. And we need to stop apologizing for that. We are doing gay youth and extraordinary injustice.”
It was clear from the onset of the series that Polo and Saum had serious on-screen chemistry as mothers, wives, and actual sexual beings (go Freeform!). But more than that, the actresses formed an abiding friendship that spilled over into just about every photo shoot and interview they’ve been a part of since the show began.
“In the beginning… personally, I was a little intimidated by her. I mean, she’s balled out. I remember doing the chemistry readings with her. She wasn’t sticking to the script really, and she was joking with all these—in my mind—scary producers,” Saum recalls. “I already had the job at this point, but I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s going off the rails. What’s happening?’ And the beauty of it was that it was the contrary—that’s what they were looking for. [They wanted] Somebody who was a balled-out, fearless, strong woman, and that’s really who she was.”
In the end, though, Saum says it was Polo’s fierce sense of humor that wooed her.
“I started to spend a lot of time with her, and what really did it for me was her sense of humor. She made me laugh so much, and when you can do that, I’m yours. She just had me. And we peed. I mean, I tell it all the time. We just peed. I was just doubled over so many days on the show with that woman.”
Their friendship carried over off-set as well. “She was the first person, besides my family, who was in the delivery room when I had my babies,” Saum says.
While Fletcher’s character arrived at The Fosters several seasons in, his storylines are indelible. Callie had a few love interests over the course of the show’s run, but the romance with Aaron moved the needle forward as one of the first depictions of a relationship between a trans man and a cisgender woman on TV. Also, fans shipped them hard.
And even after their romance ended, they remained close friends, so much so that one of Fletcher’s favorite moments occurs after their breakup. The moment gets to the crux of the difference between what it’s like to come out for trans people versus what it’s like to come out about as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. The single line that moved Fletcher occurs after Aaron is released from solitary and vocalizes that he wants to begin sharing with people that he’s trans.
When Callie asks if he wants to "come out?" Aaron’s response is that “it’s different.”
“Coming out as gay is different from coming out as trans, because when you tell people you’re gay, people love it, and see it as you being more yourself and more authentic, but when you come out as trans, people sometimes think that you’ve been lying to them or that you’ve been deceiving them,” Fletcher recalls his character saying.
“I think that’s something that I don’t think a lot of people think about,” Fletcher says. “So literally just being able to say that line and get that message out there was very important to me.”
The good news is that while The Fosters is ending its run, the characters will live on in the spin-off Good Trouble, starring Mitchell and Ramirez, which will focus on Callie's and Mariana's post-college life in Los Angeles.
While not much is known at this point about the plot, executive producers Paige, Bredeweg, and Joanna Johnson noted in a statement that young people are changing the world.
“We’re seeing millennials in this country doing extraordinary things, making noise, taking action. Stirring up ‘good trouble’ as they grow, strive and struggle to make the mess of their early twenties into the message. As Callie and Mariana venture to Los Angeles to start their adult lives and embark on their separate but intertwined journeys to change the world, they’re going to have all the ‘good trouble’ they can handle.”
Saum praises Mitchell and Ramirez as two of those young people who are stirring things up and forging solid futures for themselves and for the world.
“Young women are owning their voice and their power and they’re managing their lives and careers,” Saum says. “Maia and Cierra particularly. They are businesswomen, and I noticed it all throughout the series—that they were doing things to further themselves and their careers, and give themselves a name. It was impressive to see that kind of savvy at that young an age.”
Regarding the spin-off Paige wants viewers to know that the creators "Are doing everything in our power to protect the family, and maintain that sense of family, even as the kids all enter their adult life."
Viewers, cast, and crew will bid farewell to the Adams-Foster family this week, at least until the spin-off, but how will the heartfelt, tear-jerking, inclusive, needle-moving series be remembered.
Paige, Saum, and Fletcher weigh in on the legacy of The Fosters:
“I really do think that The Fosters is one of the most, if not thee most inclusive show on mainstream television today,” Fletcher says. “I know that fans of the show are going to remember it as a show that helped them come out, or feel better about being a part of the foster care system, and stuff like that, which is also really great. I think it’s going to go down as one of the most inclusive shows of all time.”
“I just hope we possibly help to usher in a generation of kids and adults who have cracked their minds open a little bit more. A big part of our show was anti-bullying, and I hope it’s pushed the needle a bit on acceptance, and embracing people who are different, families who are different. I feel like it’s a huge watershed moment,” says Saum. “I have fans from all over the world who have said that because of the show, say ‘my grandmother, who used to not look me in the eye, is now throwing me a party’ and these types of things. It’s a domino effect, so I hope that the legacy will be that we’ve ushered in a new age of embracing what’s different.”
“I have this theory that everyone is beautiful, and if you can’t see someone’s beauty, you just need to get closer. And there’s something thematic about this show that falls in line with that for me,” says Paige. “This show was a real opportunity for the audience to come closer to lots of different, disparate, often marginalized, often maligned people. And to find their humanity and to find their beauty, and I hope that’s what people take away.”