By LYNN ELBER
“The Fosters” is a study in unlikely bedfellows.
The new ABC Family drama pairs mainstream star Jennifer Lopez and Peter Paige, who played bubbly Emmett in the cult favorite series “Queer as Folk,” as executive producers. It brings to television a rare depiction of a lesbian couple as heads of a household.
And “The Fosters,” airing its second episode 9 p.m. EDT Monday, combines a focus on the generally ignored lives of foster children with the challenges of an ethnically diverse home–a big reach for an hourlong series aimed at teenagers and young adults.
“I think in every time we have to kind of push that envelope and really be a reflection of what’s going on in society and … this show does that and in a smart, edgy, funny, heartfelt way,” said Lopez, who’s producing it with co-creators Paige and Bradley Bredeweg.
The 43-year-old actress-singer-dancer candidly cites her life as an example of the changing nature of family.
“You can’t keep spoon-feeding the idea of what the perfect family is. It just doesn’t exist,” she said. “Even myself, I have two kids, their dad (Marc Anthony) doesn’t live at home with us. I’m divorced. They have four stepbrothers and sisters from two other moms. It’s not traditional.”
“We all wish we had that fairy tale thing in our heads,” Lopez said. But when it doesn’t come true for children they shouldn’t have to think, `Oh, I don’t have the mom and the dad, the perfect three kids and a dog. There’s something wrong with me,'” she added.
“The Fosters” stars Teri Polo (“Meet the Parents”) and Sherri Saum as Stef Foster and Lena Adams, the couple whose family includes Stef’s biological son (David Lambert) from a former marriage, adopted twins (Cierra Ramirez, Jake T. Austin) and a newly arrived foster teenager (Maia Mitchell) whose difficult past has left her wary. Oh, and Stef is a police officer who works with her ex-husband.
It makes for a tangled web that’s rich in storytelling possibilities, not just messages, its creators said.
“Draw a line between any two of these characters and there’s a relationship that hasn’t been explored before,” Paige said. “What’s it like to be the adopted brother whose best friend is the biological brother? What’s it like to be a foster child who’s come in the house and finds herself drawn to one of the boys?”
“What’s it like to have your ex-husband, your son’s biological father who you work with, around, and does he have a role with your other kids?”
Quipped Bredeweg: “My God, I created the show and I’m so lost right now.”
An expert on the foster system consults with the show to help with accuracy. But Paige said liberties are being taken to serve the stories. Most foster children, for example, get their own bedroom; that’s dispensed with in “The Fosters” to up the drama ante.
“We are not pretending to, nor would we be interested in, doing a docu-series about the foster system. We’re after a family story where some people are chosen, where everybody has come in through a different door and finds themselves in the same room,” he said.
ABC Family is used to taking chances with such shows as “Switched at Birth,” which features deaf characters and subtitles. But how does it determine that its young audience is ready for “The Fosters,” including its lesbian couple and the challenges they face?
“It’s really a gut check,” said Kate Juergens, executive vice president in charge of programming and development for the channel. “The millennial generation is so much more colorblind than the generation before them. And gay is so not an issue for them. … They’re so much more used to people being out.”
Cast member Lambert, who’s 19, agrees: “Even if it’s an unconventional family, at the end of the day it’s really just a family.”
A total of 10 episodes will air, and Paige and Bredeweg hope for many more to come. Lopez’s involvement was key to getting the show greenlighted and, they hope, keeping it alive. “You want to get a relationship drama made, you attach a superstar,” Paige observed–and she and her Nuyorican Productions continue as active partners.
“They weigh in on story and casting. … She’s not just hands-off over in the corner, being gorgeous and glamorous,” Paige said.
“Casting is her passion,” Bredeweg added: Lopez is keen on finding new talent, and it was her call that the twins be Latino.
Will she be involved in the show as an actress or through her music?
“Music for sure. We’re looking for the right moment. There’s something in the works now we’re not at liberty to discuss. On camera, you never know,” said Paige, who has pushed his own acting career aside in favor of writing and producing TV shows and films with Bredeweg.
Lopez strikes a more cautious note about inserting herself into the drama unless it’s done in what she deems an “organic” way that’s not distracting.
“I feel like sometimes when you have somebody like me who’s in the public eye and you produce something, they always want to put you on and it feels `stunt-y’ to me sometimes. … I believe this show stands on its own,” said Lopez, the former “American Idol” judge whose company’s other TV projects include music show “Q’Viva!: The Chosen.”
But she’s eager to publicize “The Fosters” and, to that end, sat patiently for a daylong succession of interviews well before the show’s premiere. She took part in a live Twitter chat during last week’s premiere (Among her tweets: “What does family mean to you? Tell me in three words .. GO!”)
“I will bring as much attention to it as I can so people know it’s out there,” she said.
As Lopez sees it, “The Fosters” stands for what she’s learned “are the important things in life, which are family equals love. It’s a place where you go for unconditional love, to be accepted, to feel safe. And at the end of the day, that there’s no real `normal.’ That there’s no set thing of what a family is at this moment in time in our lives.”